The other day I ran into a woman I’ve known for quite a few years. I always liked her, thought she had a good head on her shoulders, was pleasant and affable, and generally someone you’d look to as a person of stability and amiability. I saw her in a setting where I would expect to see her – my office, though she wasn’t here to see me, but someone else in the office. I looked at her, then did a double take, because I was sure it was her, but there was something different. Then I realized what it was. She was wearing a head scarf and a long dress. A hijab, similar to the picture. I walked into the room and stared, and when I was sure it was her, I exclaimed “Helen (not her real name) you look like a Muslim!” Open mouth, insert foot.
“I am a Muslim”, she said. I was taken aback, but lest she think I was having negative thoughts about her because of the current climate in this country concerning Muslims, I simply mumbled something about not knowing, and my co-worker saved me, by interjecting that she just got married, and was preparing to go to her husband’s country of origin to visit his mother, and meet the family of new in-laws. That explained things quite well, and I understood that she must have converted to her husband’s religion in order to marry him, which explained the headdress and outfit. I realized that I was just taken aback, at first, because when I knew Helen, she was as WASPish, as white, as American, as Christian as this locality can produce, so it was odd to see her dressed this way, but I regained my usual tolerant composure, acted dumb, and congratulated her on her recent nuptials.
I don’t mention this to denigrate her husband or her newly chosen religion (though I’ve often found it strange how people can change religions like they change underwear when it comes to love and relationships. Was their previous religion not true? ), but to discuss something else, something she mentioned that got me thinking. We talked about her new religion a little, and she mentioned that we were all born Muslims, according to what she was taught. Presumably, at some point in our lives, we chose to reject Islam, at least according to the Islamic faith. I don’t know enough about Islam, so maybe someone out there can shed some light on this point of Islamic theology.
In the process of my personal deconversion (from Roman Catholicism) I had come to the conclusion, particularly after reading David Eller’s Natural Atheism, that we are all born atheists. This is so true, to me, that it’s self-evident. Girls don’t come down the birth canal wearing a head scarf, or boys wearing yarmulkes. One isn’t born religious. One isn’t born anything, other than human. Belief in a religion is something you acquire, or more correctly, you’re indoctrinated into at an early age by your parents, your family, and your culture. This is why most people born in Saudi Arabia are Muslims, and most people born in South America are Christians. Your birth place and family tends to determine what religion you will be brought up in, and more importantly, which religion you’ll most likely stick with into adulthood. As the Jesuits used to say “Give me the child before age seven and I’ll give you the man.”
So I was wondering, after my encounter with Helen, exactly when it was that I decided I didn’t want to be a Muslim, since I had been born one. Clearly, if we are born Muslims, as their theology seems to indicate, and we find ourselves in another religion for as far back as we can remember, then at some point we must have rejected Islam.
Was it some time before age three, that period of my youth of which I have no memory, that I was confronted with the perplexing theological conundrum I now know as Islam, and rejected it? Because surely after that age of my life, I have only memories of Catholic churches, schools, nuns and priests, so I must have rejected Islam before that.
And did most, if not all of the people I know, and have known throughout my life, also reject Islam at an early age? They must have, and also have no memory of it, for I can’t remember anyone ever telling me about their life as a Muslim as I was growing up.
Or maybe Helen is mistaken? Maybe that’s what she was told in Islamic premarital Catechism classes, to make her feel better about switching religions so late in life. I can imagine that love of one’s fiance can only go so far in assuaging any doubt, that if one could convince themselves that they are not really changing religion, simply re-embracing that which they were at birth, it would make the conversion that much more palatable.
Yes, that must be it. Just another instance of religion rationalizing itself into existence.