DR. KHALID SOHAIL

SAYING GOODBYE TO GOD, HELLO TO HUMANISM
IN SEARCH OF TRUTH…
STORY OF MY PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL JOURNEY

URDU TRANSLATION

FROM ISLAM TO SECULAR HUMANISM

Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for joining Family of the Heart on this special day and

 

    Dr. Khalid Sohail

 becoming part of this exciting dialogue and wonderful seminar.

When I was twenty years old and I shared with my poet uncle Arif Abdul Mateen that I no longer believed in God, he smiled in a graceful way and said, “ When my uncle, your grandfather, was sixty he became an atheist, when I was forty, I stopped believing in God and now you have become an atheist at the age of twenty. I would like to congratulate you on choosing the road less traveled but I would like to give you one piece of advice. Please do not share your truth with your traditional parents, friends and relatives as they might give you a hard time.

Over the years I have realized that a stage comes in our life when we are ready not only to accept our truth but also share it with our dear ones. Before I share my story, I want to make it very clear that I did not come here today to convert you. I respect your truths. I just hope that my story will inspire you to share your story with us one day, whether you are a believer or a non-believer, an agnostic or a humanist. I think all of us have wonderful personal and philosophical stories to share.

Buddha once said, “One’s own experience is the ultimate teacher.”

I believe that all human beings are unique and so are their journeys of personal growth, maturity and enlightenment. Every day I listen to other people’s stories as a psychotherapist, but today I want to share with you my own story, the story of my relationship with God, the struggles I had with Him, my religious dilemmas, my sexual and spiritual conflicts, my intellectual nightmares and how I dealt with my dilemmas and dreams.

PART ONE

Being brought up in a traditional family and religious culture, I inherited a faith in God from my family and community. I was conditioned to be a believer. As a child I believed in a Personal God. For years I prayed regularly with my father and fasted faithfully with my mother. They used to be so proud of me. My mom taught me how to read Quran at an early age. Unfortunately I could not understand it as my mom, like millions of other Muslims in Pakistan, did not understand Arabic.

The first intellectual crisis with my belief in God took place when I started reading science in high school. Science helped me ask questions and develop a rational attitude. I vividly remember the day in Peshawar when hundreds of people gathered in Eid Gah to pray. (offer Salat-e-istasqa). Since it had not rained for weeks, they were praying to God for rain. That day I looked at the clear blue sky and wondered if God would listen to those prayers and send dark clouds. That day a number of questions arose in my heart.

If God is merciful like a kind attentive mother why does He not respond to his children’s needs?

Does God change his mind when people pray?

I was learning as a student of science that it rained according to the laws of nature and those laws were not affected by people and their wishes, dreams and prayers.  When it did not rain for another couple of weeks, I questioned some people about the usefulness and efficacy of prayers. They stated that God needed some sacrifices. One man said, “God is angry with us and we are being punished because we have sinned”. His explanation confused me further.

Does God get angry?

Does He punish His children?

Can He be bribed by sacrifices?

It seemed as if people around me had a love/hate relationship with God. 

I remembered the times as a child when I was sick or I had a difficult examination in school and I used to pray to God. I started to question the rationale of my own prayers and wondered if God ever responded to them and how could I prove or disprove it. These were the beginnings of serious dialogues in my mind questioning the blind faith that I had inherited from previous generations.

While I was struggling with my intellectual crisis I experienced an emotional crisis. That was the time when I reached puberty and started having wet dreams. One day my dad took me to his room, showed me a book named Bahishti Zaiver and asked me to read it. It was a fascinating but strange book. It talked about every aspect of life but discussed every issue from a religious point of view. The book was full of moral rather than psychological discussions. There were detailed discussions about what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad and what was a virtue and what was a sin. It discussed women’s periods and men’s wet dreams. It stated that semen was unclean and when boys had wet dreams they could not offer morning prayers until they took a bath to become clean and pure. Such a reading created a crisis because I had wet dreams quite frequently and taking a bath in the morning was an acknowledgment that I had had a wet dream the night before which I found quite embarrassing. In Peshawar the temperature fell below the freezing point so I had to boil water before taking the bath. For a few months I went to the mosque before my dad and secretly took a bath before my dad came. In Pakistan we did not wear underwear so washing my clothes and drying them was another dilemma. It created such anxiety that I came to the conclusion that the plan suggested in Bahishti Zaiver was not realistic. I asked myself: “What does God care whether I took a bath or not?” But in Bahishti Zaiver I had read a long discussion about sinners and their burning in Hell. That description sent a cold shiver down my spine.

Fear of God, feelings of becoming a sinner and burning in Hell were not the most pleasant ways to accept my puberty and sexuality. I am sharing this private matter of my life because it was the beginning of a painful phase in my teenage years. It caused me sleepless nights and I experienced terrible nightmares. During that time reading the translation of Quran in Urdu did not help matters. The descriptions of Hell [jahunnum] in Quran were not the reflection of a kind, gentle and forgiving God. For a while I was convinced that I was a sinner in the eyes of God because I did not take a bath after having wet dreams. Those wet dreams precipitated a major crisis in my relationship with God. I am not sure how many other young boys and girls from Muslim communities and religious countries go through that emotional crisis when they reach puberty and have periods and wet dreams but for me it was awful. That was one reason when my nephew Zeeshan reached puberty and consulted me, rather than giving him Bahishti Zaiver to read I and my sweetheart Bette Davis wrote Love, Sex and Marriage so that the younger generation can associate sex with friendship, love and spirituality rather than sin, guilt and fear of a punitive God.

As I grew older I also realized that my relationship with God was abstract and not concrete. I could not talk to Him, could not see Him and could not ask Him questions. That was the beginning of my questioning my beliefs and relying on my own experiences. How could I believe in someone I could not see or love someone I could not touch or talk openly and honestly? I wondered why I had to rely on religious books and sermons of religious maulanas and accept their truth as my truth. I wanted to experience God myself but I could not. That was when I thought for the first time that I would accept Him when I experienced Him.

And then one Friday I heard a maulana preaching about the fate of sinners. He said they would be tortured in their graves (azab-e-qabar) and he painted a vivid picture of snakes and scorpions that would be biting the dead body. It was scary. He also talked about the red-hot flames where sinners would be burnt alive in Hell. And that torture was not temporary. He said it would be eternal. Everybody around me was taking those things lightly and ignoring the sermons of an angry maulana while I was taking him seriously and imagining my sufferings. That sermon did not help my sleepless nights and terrifying nightmares. Rather it made them worse.

My traumatic story did not end there. Unfortunately I went to another mosque and listened to another maulana who was discussing the topic of masturbation. He also declared it a sin and warned that God would punish sinners. Alongside the torture in the grave and the Day of Judgment he also mentioned that people who masturbate have physical and mental disorders. They can become afflicted with mental retardation, cancer, blindness and even mental illness. I was really scared. Now that I look back at those years I can laugh at myself but as a teenager it was a big deal and I felt scared and sinful. It did not help my self-esteem. As I learnt more about medicine and human psychology I realized that those maulanas were ill informed. They did not know that masturbation was quite normal and natural and which is why some people call it self-pleasuring rather than self-abuse. As an adult I realized that the God those maulanas presented was fictitious and was more of reflection of their own personality and imagination than any objective reality. I used to wonder how they could talk about what happened in the graves, the Day of Judgment and Hell with such confidence, even arrogance, when they had never visited those places.

Some of you might be wondering why I have to focus so much on my sexual conflicts with Religion and God and talk about subjects that are a taboo in our traditional and religious culture. Bur today I am sharing with you the painful realities of my life. While I was struggling with my dilemmas during my psychiatric training in Peshawar I met a number of young men and women who had experienced a nervous breakdown because of their sexual and religious conflicts and had to be admitted to mental asylum and were treated for their sexual delusions and religious hallucinations. Today I am sharing my sexual experiences openly and honestly not to have some perverse pleasure but to share with you the emotional pain I, like many other boys and girls, who suffer in silence, experienced as a teenager.

The second crisis I faced was when I was studying anatomy, physiology and pathology. The biggest breakdown of beliefs was when I studied embryology. Embryology highlighted how we need an ovum and a sperm to have a baby. I started asking myself,

“What about Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary?”

“What about immaculate conception?”

I remember asking a maulana, “If Mary had an ovum where did the sperm come from? “

He responded, “It was a miracle and God can perform miracles.”

“But what about the laws of nature?”

“They are made by God and he can change or break them whenever He wants.” I was not very convinced by his argument. If that were the case the whole

universe would be in chaos

As a medical student I thought that if prayers could heal people then there was no need for me to study medicine. I could become a faith healer and pray and ask God to perform miracles. Then I could cure infections by prayers rather than antibiotics and mend fractures by faith healing rather than performing operations. It was a confusing time for me. My faith in God and my love for science were causing intellectual and emotional nightmares. For me to become a doctor meant that we need to diagnose illnesses on scientific basis and then treat them in a responsible, compassionate and rational way. I was not convinced that the faith healers could heal physical illnesses. By the time I graduated from the medical school I had adopted a rational, logical and scientific attitude towards life. I was respectful of people’s faiths but in day-to-day life focused on a logic and rationality rather than blind faith.

From a psychological point of view the most significant struggle was with the belief that God was omnipresent. As a child I believed that He looked after me and protected me, but as a teenager I felt as if He was not respecting my privacy. He was with me when I was in the washroom and in the bedroom. He became like a camera taking pictures when I did not want Him to do that. How could He be present when I was using the toilet or making love to my sweetheart? Maybe other believers never think of that but it bothered me a lot. Gradually God became like an old Father who was overprotective and over-involved. I felt it was time for Him to leave. I was no longer a child. I did not need His protection. I could look after myself. I thanked him for all His help and asked Him to leave me alone. I reassured him that I could look after myself and He did not need to worry about me. Looking back now I realize that I had a relationship with Him for nearly twenty years.

As I studied religious and mystic literature I came to know two Gods. The God of fundamentalist religious people and maulanas was a judgmental and punitive God while the God of saints, sadhus and mystics was a kind, gentle, accepting and forgiving God. But I had reached a stage in life where as an adult I needed neither a punitive nor a kind God. I realized I could live without Him. I was ready to say “Goodbye” to Him. The punitive as well as the kind God made me feel like a child.

I vividly remember the night when I had a long discussion with Him. It was not a dialogue; it was rather a monologue. I talked and He listened like a psychoanalyst. I was lying on my bed like a patient of a psychoanalyst who practices free association while lying on a couch. I realized that for twenty years I talked to God and He never answered.  After a long monologue and saying goodbye to God, I fell asleep and He left like an old Native Indian grandfather who leaves in the middle of the night when it is time to go and his family never sees him again. After that night I never had a monologue with God or prayed to Him. We parted gracefully and respectfully.

From a psychological point of view, now that I look back to that stage of my life as a psychotherapist and focus on my journey of personal growth and emotional maturity, I think that as the sun of my self-confidence started to shine in my heart, blind faith in God started to disappear like the morning fog. That was the time I started seeing with my own eyes, listening with my own ears, feeling with my own heart, thinking with my own mind and trusting my own encounters with life. It was a wonderful experience.


PART TWO

When I was at university, alongside my interest in medicine I also became fascinated with the disciplines of theology, sociology, anthropology and mythology. I was intrigued to find out that different cultures have different concepts of God.

In some cultures we have a male God, in others we have female Goddesses.

In some cultures God is fatherly and punitive, in others, God is motherly and nurturing.

In some cultures God is abstract, in others God appears as man-made statues and idols.

In some cultures God is perceived as a Creator and is believed to exist outside the universe. In others people say All that Exists is God.

In some cultures people believe God lives within all of us, and we do not need to believe in Him to know and experience Him.

In some cultures people believe we are all Gods in the making.

After studying different theologies and mythologies, I came to believe that rather than saying Man was created in God’s image, it might be wiser to say that God was created in Man’s image and that the qualities assigned to God or Allah or Bhagwan or Great Mystery are reflections of the human psyche of that era and culture. There are no two human beings or cultures in the whole wide world that have a similar concept or experience of the reality. For those who project their fears and insecurities, God becomes a psychologist’s Rorschach Test, and for those who project their fantasies, dreams and ideals, God becomes a Santa Claus.

There is a time human beings as children believe in Santa Claus, but then they grow up and learn to buy their own toys while they fulfill their own dreams and follow their own ideals.

When I studied human history I found out that the concept and belief in God has also faced many challenges over the centuries. The biggest threat to blind faith in God was the tradition of rational thinking developed by Greek philosophers, and the most fatal war that God had to face was with science and philosophy. That holy war had different outcomes in different communities, countries and cultures. Octavio Paz, a Mexican Nobel laureate compared God’s war in the Christian and Muslim worlds. He believed that in the Christian world science and philosophy won and God lost while in the Muslim world God won and science and philosophy lost. He wrote, “God, our God, was a victim of philosophical infection, the Logos was the virus, the cause of death…we Christians have used pagan philosophy to kill our God. Philosophy was the weapon, but the hand that wielded it was our hand. We are obliged to go back to Nietzsche’s idea: within the perspective of the death of God, atheism can only be experienced as a personal act—even though this thought is unbearable and intolerable. Only Christians can really kill God….Islam has experienced difficulties similar to those Christianity has undergone. Finding it impossible to discover any rational or philosophical ground for belief in a single God, Abu Hamid Ghazali writes his Incoherence of Philosophy; a century later, Averroes answers with his Incoherence of Incoherence. For Moslems, too, the battle between God and philosophy was a fight to the death. In this instance God won, and a Muslim Nietzsche might have written: “ Philosophy is dead; we all killed it together. You killed it and I killed it.” (Ref 2 p114)

Of all the Eastern and Western philosophers that dealt with the belief in God and its impact on humanity, I would like to quote two that impressed me the most, J. Krishnamurti from the East and from the West, Karen Armstrong. Armstrong in her book History of God discusses the crisis of faith. She highlights that the belief in a traditional and Personal God faced a serious dilemma in the twentieth century, especially after the tragedy of the Holocaust. Many traditional believers had to review their philosophy and ideology. She wrote, ‘ One day the Gestapo hanged a child. Even the SS were disturbed by the prospect of hanging a young boy in front of thousands of spectators. The child who, Elie Weisel recalled, had the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’ was silent, lividly pale and almost calm as he ascended the gallows. Behind Weisel, one of the other prisoners was forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again, “Where is God now?’ And Weisel heard a voice within him make this answer: Where is He? Here He is…He is hanging here on the gallows…

‘…Many Jews can no longer subscribe to the biblical idea of God who manifests himself in history, who, they say with Weisel, died in Auschwitz. The idea of a personal God, like one of us writ large, is fraught with difficulty. If this God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop it, he is impotent and useless, if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is a monster. Jews are not the only people who believe that the Holocaust put an end to conventional theology.” (Ref 3)

On the other hand Krishnamurti highlights that belief does not stop people from committing all kinds of violence. When he was asked, “Belief in God has been a powerful incentive to better living. Why do you deny God? Why do you not try to revive man’s faith in the idea of God?” he responded, “Let us look at the problem widely and intelligently…I know you believe and I know it has very little meaning in your life. There are many people who believe, millions believe in God and take consolation. First of all, why do you believe? You believe because it gives you satisfaction, consolation, hope, and you say it gives you significance in life. Actually your belief has very little significance, because you believe and exploit, you believe and kill, you believe in a universal God and murder each other. The rich man also believes in God; he exploits ruthlessly, accumulates money, and then builds a temple and becomes a philanthropist.

The men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima said God was with them, those who flew from England to destroy Germany said that God was their co-pilot. The dictators, the prime ministers, the generals, the presidents, all talk to God, they have immense faith in God. Are they doing service, making a better life for man? The people who say they believe in God have destroyed half of the world and the world is in complete misery.” (Ref 1 )

Even in the contemporary world crisis both leaders, Osama bin Laden in the East and George Bush in the West, the biggest threats to world peace, both not only believe in God but also insist that God is on their side.


PART THREE

After saying ‘goodbye’ to God I went through a phase when I experienced the loss. There were times I felt sad and depressed and there were other times when I felt angry and resentful. I realized that the losing my relationship with God had created a gap in my personality and a hole in my psyche. Gradually I filled that hole with my creative activities, practice of psychotherapy and humanistic philosophy.

After finishing medical school I pursued my future in psychiatry. .After practicing traditional psychiatry for a number of years. I developed my own style of therapy, which was based on my humanistic philosophy. Such philosophy not only helped me in my personal life but also in my professional life. I realized that I could live my life happily and peacefully without God and Religion. I have shared my secular and humanistic philosophy in my books The Art of Living/Loving/Working in Your Green Zone. When I practiced traditional psychiatry using the medical model, I used to prescribe medications and give shock treatment to my patients that I never took myself. But since I discovered my Green Zone Philosophy, I teach my patients and their families the same philosophy that I practise in my own personal, social, romantic and professional lives. It is a philosophy in which every human being discovers his/her own happy, healthy and peaceful lifestyle that I call Green Zone Living.

To live in our Green Zone I feel we can all follow the roads of creativity, spirituality and serving humanity. In my evolution and saying goodbye to God and institutionalized religion I learnt a lot from Mystic poets like Kabir Das, Bullah Shah, William Blake and Walt Whitman. As a believer I used to be an angry, anxious and guilt-ridden person living in my unhappy Red Zone. As a Humanist I feel relaxed and calm and live in my peaceful Green Zone. Over the years, alongside physical, emotional and social dimensions I have also discovered a spiritual dimension of the human personality but for me spirituality is part of our humanity and not part of divinity.

It has been my understanding that people who focus on the spiritual dimension of their lives develop a mystic personality. Such people:

…develop a sense of contentment and are not materialistic

…have an accepting rather than judgmental attitude towards others

…find a new relationship with nature

…discover their unique meaning in life

and

…are eager to serve humanity.

It is ironic that many of them discover that organized religion, rather than promoting spirituality, hinders it. I have met a number of atheists who had peaceful personalities and were serving their communities. It was a pleasant surprise for me to discover as a psychotherapist that human beings did not need to believe in God or follow any religion to develop a mystic personality and lifestyle. I met many believers who find it difficult to accept that atheists and free thinkers can be caring, compassionate and loving people.

In my philosophical journey, the last question I had to ask myself was that if I did not believe in God then what did I think of all those saints, sadhus, mystics and prophets who talked to God and claimed that God talked to them and that they received divine revelations through angels? I had been thinking a lot about those mystics and prophets in the last few years. As a student of science and human psychology, when I reviewed recent studies of human neurology that are very eloquently presented in Dr. Robert Buckman’s book Can We Be Good Without God, I came to realize that the revelations of poets, mystics and prophets originated in their own unconscious minds and were due to special activity in their Right Brains, especially the Right Temporal Lobes, the wombs of creativity and spirituality. When those messages were received by the Left Brain, it felt as though they came from outside, and depending upon the personal and cultural beliefs, were accepted by the person as voices and visions from angels and God. Now I believe that those mystics and prophets had developed a cosmic consciousness and such great poets, writers, prophets and reformers have been creating wisdom literature for centuries. Now I read holy scriptures as part of such wisdom literature. I accept them as the outcome of the creative process of those great people rather than the messages of God. It took me a long time to discover that the creativity and spirituality of poets, writers mystics and prophets is a mixed blessing. On one hand it helps them get in touch with profound truths and insights about life but it also makes them vulnerable to temporal lobe epilepsy and insanity. Some of them suffered an emotional breakdown before they experienced a spiritual breakthrough. That is why I named my next book From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs; in which I have explored the relationship between creativity, insanity and spirituality.

Now that I have said goodbye to God and embraced Humanism I feel more at peace with myself, and my environment. Now I am trying to develop my creativity and serve humanity. Now I can respect all people from all faiths and traditions. Now I believe not only in freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. Now I believe that religions and faiths are the private affairs of all citizens, while communities need to enact secular and humanistic laws in which all citizens, especially women, children and minorities, have equal rights and privileges.

When I was a believer I wanted to follow religious laws and traditions in this life and go to Heaven after I die. After becoming a Humanist I aspire to become a person who has

…the mind of a scientist that enjoys rational thinking,

…the heart of a poet that cherishes aesthetic values

and

…the personality of a mystic that fosters peaceful living and serves humanity.

I have gradually realized that alongside my physical, psychological and social dimension, I also have a spiritual dimension to my personality. But my spirituality is part of my humanity and not part of divinity. I feel strongly that I can live a peaceful life without God.

When I ask myself the original question of the seminar “Can we say goodbye to God?” my answer is “Yes.” I am of the opinion that we, as human beings, have reached that stage of maturity, growth, evolution and enlightenment that with the help of science, philosophy and a genuine respect for human rights and privileges for all human beings all over the world, we can discover a happy, healthy and peaceful life individually and collectively without believing in God and without the political control of organized religions. Over the years I have discovered that we do not need to believe in God to fulfill our dreams and ideals, love our neighbors and serve humanity. I believe we can grow individually and collectively without a blind faith in God, Religions and Scriptures.

Finally, I would like to thank all of you for coming today and being part of this dialogue. I find it amazing that most human beings all over the world live and die with the same faith as their parents and grandparents. I wonder whether they ever question their faith and discover their own truth. An anonymous philosopher once said, “Most of us die before we are fully born.” I hope you leave today’s seminar with questions and answers that start you on a journey of self-discovery—and when you get in touch with your own truth please share it with others.   Thank you.

September 4th, 2005

DR. KHALID SOHAIL
PSYCHOTHERAPIST
CREATIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY CLINIC CANADA
WEBSITE…WWW.DRSOHAIL.COM

 

 

REFERENCES

1.Sohail Khalid…From Islam to Secular Humanism…Abbeyfield Publishers Toronto Canada 2001

2.  Paz Octavio …Alternating Current…Arcade Publishing New York USA 1967

3.     Armstrong Karen…A History of God…Ballantine Books New York…USA 1993

 

 

Send questions or comments to Pervaiz Salahuddin