My Imagined (Not Imaginary) Friend

I am about half way through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 to Muslim parents.  Her father was a leader of revolutionary forces opposing Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre in the 70s and 80s, requiring her family to move to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya before she reached adolescence.  Having experienced first hand, the brutality of Islamist beliefs toward women (including the mutilation of her genitals at the age of five), Hirsi Ali has become a strong and articulate critic of those Muslim beliefs and practices that lead to the subjugation, oppression and abuse of women.

Hirsi Ali’s biography is as riveting as it is hard to read.  In addition to describing the suffering and brutality she has experienced, she provides a compelling account of her faith journey.   As a child she studies the Quran in a series of schools and works hard to submit to its teachings.  Submission, Hirsi Ali explains, is the central tenet of Islam, complete submission.  But young Hirsi Ali also loves to read, and she devours everything from Western literature to romance novels.  The values that are communicated in these stories contrast with the messages she hears from the imam and the harsh realities of her life leading her to question her faith.

I never do this, but I was so curious that I flipped to the back of the book to find out how Hirsi Ali resolves these conflicts and answers these questions.  She becomes an atheist.  “Before reading four pages (of The Atheist Manifesto),” writes Hirsi Ali, “I already knew my answer.  I had left God behind years ago.  I was an atheist.  It felt right.  There was no pain, but a real clarity.”

I confess that I felt sad when I read this.  I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing.  Hirsi Ali makes it clear that her decision to be an atheist is liberating for her, freeing her from an oppressive and violent God.  Her choice is rational and understandable in the context of her life.  I admire her courage and strength.  Nonetheless, I was very disappointed.  To me, the choice to be an atheist represents the ultimate failure of imagination and therefore, the death of hope.

This probably requires explanation.  First, I am not saying that God is imaginary.  God is not like Santa Claus or the imaginary friend, Kala, that my daughter Abigail used to have.  I believe that God is more “real” than the physical world we live in.  But just as imagination is necessary to write poetry, to make music, to play, to invent and to create, so also imagination is necessary to conceive of and live in relationship with God.  Hirsi Ali writes, “God, Satan, angels:  these were all figments of the human imagination,” as if this is a bad thing!  Of course they are.  Faith is humanity’s greatest creative act.  Faith is sacred imagination!  If we can, against all reason and experience, conceive of a good, just, loving, forgiving God, maybe we can also imagine, then live into, a world without war, racism, homophobia, hunger and poverty.  But if we give up on God, on the possibility of God, if we say our broken down, crappy humanity is all we’ve got, what, then, do we aspire to?  What do we reach for?  What do we live for?

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 2:14 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Good morning, George. Having not read the Quran, I cannot speak to the Scriptural legitimacy of anything Hirsi Ali was taught/endured. Certainly is not uncommon for religious teachings to be twisted by human beings for their own agendas to the point that they end up so far afield of the original intentions as to be nothing less than abuse of power and, yes, evil cloaked in religious rhetoric. I do, however, have very strong feelings on the choice of atheism.

    There is no getting around the pivotal questions: if God exists, why are oppression, evil, and tragedy rampant upon the earth? Why do such awful, unspeakable things happen to good or at least innocent people? Surely, the God of love is nothing but propaganda, right? How could it be otherwise? In this scenario, we actually afford God the benefit of the doubt by disbelieving God’s existence. For if God does exist, that must mean either God is okay with human calamity [and thus party to the plagues of wrong upon the earth], or God does not care one way or the other, or, God really is not loving or powerful or anything we would need God to be.

    God is thus relegated to an ultimate defense mechanism gone flat, an uncaring/uninvolved superhero of yore, or just plain ineffectual.

    What, then, is a disillusioned, abused mortal to think/do?

    Bizarre notion that atheism might in certain circumstances be a [seemingly] rational way to survive. What was the choice for Ali? Submission to the brutality that her Divinely created soul righteously raged against? How sad that in order to survive and maintain any semblance of sanity in this world, countless human beings often opt to totally reject God: the very source, substance, and supply of all real life.

    Evil doing does not represent life, especially not when done in the name of God. NEVER. The God of love does not condone human violence. Abuse is never Truth.

    For me, the choice of atheism is not valid because of its inherent confusion of religion vs. God. This [convenient] confusion removes human responsibility and the concomitant obligations of free will from mortal actions. When wrong is done within any religious tradition, when God is used as the not-to-be-questioned front man to validate abuses of power or any other human agenda, then God is no longer part of the equation – abandoned not by God but, rather, usurped by mortal machinations.

    God surely exists, but not as a puppeteer. God is our very present help and comfort, but does not rule our days if we’ve evicted Him from our hearts. The Rock of Ages is, indeed, our unfailing stronghold. However, It/He/She was never intended to be used to bludgeon anyone, anywhere, EVER.

    I believe atheism is a humanly conceived escape hatch with a logical purpose when all real logic, all truth bites, or is driven by humankind into, the dust. It is, therefore, up to human beings to consciously, intentionally, and mindfully hold God sacred and LIVE in ways we were truly created to live, are implored to live in caring/compassionate global community, and in fact, are endowed with the power to live – if only we will.

    Atheism is a construct that can only exist when too many human beings espouse the existence of God [across all religious traditions] but then live in ways that make God look like a liar – when it is we, ourselves, who betray God’s truth and, thus, the truth of God.

    For those who [myself included many times] claim an aversion for organized religion, my comment is simply that we so rarely experience organized religion. What we have experienced all too often and across many centuries, however, is an over-abundance of disorganized religion.

    The existence of atheism is sad, even tragic. But imagine the possibilities for eradicating it if only people who claim to believe in God [again, regardless of tradition] live as if they/we really mean it.

    Thanks to be to God for the hope and help to change our ways! For with God, all good things truly are possible.

  2. “But if we give up on God, on the possibility of God, if we say our broken down, crappy humanity is all we’ve got, what, then, do we aspire to? What do we reach for? What do we live for? ”

    We aspire to make a difference in THIS world because it’s all there is. We don’t waste our time trying to convince others to have hope in something that may never come.
    We make a difference by NOT contributing to the
    “broken down, crappy ” part but instead being kind, generous and nice.

    In many Christian circles, saving a soul is considered more important than being considerate, kind and respectful to others. So in that way, the belief in the eternal is contributing to the problem.

    Former Evangelical Christian

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