BALAND: Mansoor Hallaj, the mystic poet, claimed an al haq, [ I am creative truth. I am God]. Gandhi Ji stated that, there is no religion of God.

Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to our Rawal TV program Password. In this program we have intellectually stimulating dialogues with poets and philosophers, artists and mystics, writers and scholars. Today’s theme is Theism, Atheism, Humanism, and our special guest is Dr. Khalid Sohail. Dr. Sohail is a humanist psychotherapist, who has authored two books about this topic in English titled, From Islam to Secular Humanism and The Next Stage of Human Evolution and one book in Urdu titled, Insani Shaoor ka Irteqa [Evolution of Human Consciousness].

Ladies and Gentlemen, Human beings have been evolving for centuries. During their evolutionary journey their food, their clothes and their traditions, in short, their everything has changed. The same human beings that used to write on leaves now write on computer screens. The same human beings who used to live in the caves of the mountains are now building space stations. And the same human beings who used to worship many gods are now denying even one God. They have evolved from the philosophies of polytheism, monotheism and atheism to humanism. Believers believe that God created this universe, atheists ask, ‘If everything that exists has a creator, then who is the creator of the creator God? If the universe has a designer, then who is the designer of the designer?’ Humanists believe that human beings are the creators of all beliefs. Rather than believing that God created human beings it might be more realistic to believe that human beings created the concept of God.

Ladies and Gentlemen! In our program today we will try to discuss the mysterious relationship between atheism, theism and humanism. I will try to remain neutral and impartial. We will explore what objections religious people have of atheists and how atheists respond to those objections. Today our special guest to the program is Dr. Sohail. Dr. Sohail, thanks for coming to our program.

SOHAIL: Thank you for inviting me to your program. I love your television program. It is very inspiring. So whenever you invite me I try to oblige.

BALAND: Today’s topic is very complex but also very important. Last week your group Family of the Heart organized a seminar in Toronto and a number of learned scholars presented their inspiring papers on this topic. Why don’t we start today’s interview with the subject of Theism? What are your views about world religions?

SOHAIL: Baland, you are well aware that I am a humanist and I believe in human evolution. I am of the opinion that in every era, human beings tried to understand their own nature and the nature of the natural environment around them.  Since human beings, as well as the universe, are mysterious, they tried to unravel the mysteries of nature according to their knowledge, experience and wisdom. Such a process gave birth to different ideas, ideals and ideologies in different parts of the world. I am a great admirer of an American philosopher, Joseph Campbell. In his lectures and books, Campbell shared that throughout history, human beings have created seven mythologies in seven different cultures. One of those seven mythologies is the Juda-o-Christian-o-Islamic Mythology of the Middle East. The second is the Hindu Mythology of India, the third is the Greek Mythology of Greece, the fourth is the Native Indian Mythology and so on. Each mythology is a world view that reflects the science and philosophy of that culture. Now when we review those mythologies in the 21st century, we call them world religions. Those religions are part of our history, our past and our heritage.

BALAND: Do you see any major difference in world religions? Do they have a similar or different concept of God?

SOHAIL: Every culture has its unique culture and unique concept of God but I will focus on only three here. In the Middle East the concept of God that became popular is a reflection of Abrahamic Tradition. In that tradition God is the creator and the universe is the creation. Mystics call it the tradition of hama az oast [All that exists is FROM God]. On the other hand, the God of Hindu Tradition is known as the tradition of hama oast [All that exists IS God]. In the first tradition God is separate from creation while in the second tradition God and universe are the same. Some philosophers do not see much difference in these two philosophies and consider it a matter of semantics. While others take that difference very seriously. Those Muslim mystics, like Mansoor Hallaj, who were inspired by Hindu tradition and started believing in ‘All that exists is God’, started seeing God in everything around them including themselves and declared I AM GOD. Such declaration was considered blasphemous and such mystics were crucified. Followers of those two traditions have been having religious wars for centuries. Alongside these two traditions, there is a third tradition that belongs to Native Indian Tradition. In that tradition God is a great mystery.

BALAND: Let us move now from Theism to Atheism. Followers of religious traditions believe that religion is very important for our lives. They believe that religion provides us with a moral code. It gives us a system of punishment and reward. It offers us a lifestyle. It tells us that if we do good deeds we will go to heaven and if we do bad deeds we will be sent to hell. After all, what is wrong with this ideology? Why do atheists criticize and challenge religious ideologies?

SOHAIL: In this interview I am not going to represent all atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers. I am going to share my personal views. I believe that all Prophets were reformers who tried to create a just and peaceful world. But unfortunately their disciples were not of the same caliber. They did not have the same wisdom. That is why each religion became divided into many sects and they began having holy wars with each other. If we study the followers of the four major religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – we will find two major groups in all of them. The first group of followers consists of fundamentalists and militants. They are narrow minded and prejudiced and ready to spill blood in the name of a merciful God.

The second group of followers consists of saints and sants, sadhus and Sufis, who are peace loving people. I call such followers Religious Humanists as they do a lot of humanitarian work and serve their communities. Some examples of such Religious Humanists are Abdul Sattar Edhi in Pakistan, Martin Luther King Jr in America and Desmund Tutu in South Africa. All these leaders sacrificed to create a just and peaceful world. Alongside these Religious Humanists, there is another group that I call Secular Humanists. Secular Humanists believe that in the 21st century, modern science, psychology and philosophy have evolved to the degree that to create a just and peaceful world we do not need religions. I think with the passage of time more and more people are leaving the religious tradition and joining the secular tradition.

BALAND: Religious people claim that religions are right, only their followers are wrong. They say there is no problem with Islam, all the problems belong to Muslims. Just because Muslims are behaving badly, we cannot blame Islam for their bad behavior. What do you think of that way of thinking?

SOHAIL: All heavenly religions have one thing in common. They declare some things holy and sacred. When things become holy and sacred then human beings cannot have an open and honest dialogue about them. If some people criticize religious ideology others declare them blasphemous. Free thinkers believe that when you close the doors to dialogues, discussions and debates, you transform an open system into a closed system. That is how a river becomes a pond. That is why religious ideologies have become stagnant. There was a time Muslims created philosophers and physicians like Avicenna, Razi and Ibn Khaldun, but in the last thousand years Muslims as a nation, have stopped producing scientists and scholars. Muslims have started looking towards the past rather than the future. Now many of them have become past worshipers.

BALAND: Do you consider Science and Religion friends or enemies?

SOHAIL: Science and Religion operate in two separate worlds. Albert Einstein captured that very succinctly when he stated that Science deals with WHAT IS and Religion deals with WHAT SHOULD BE.

According to Muslim scholar Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz, knowledge can be divided in three classes:

The first class consists of knowledge that is rational and logical.

The second class consists of knowledge that is irrational and illogical.

And the third class consists of knowledge that is supra-logical and supra-rational.

When Science had not developed we could not test many supra-rational religious theories. The more Science developed, the more we could test the supra-rational theories of Religion and separate rational theories from irrational theories. There was a time religious people believed that only God knew the gender of the baby in the mother’s womb. But with the advancement of Science and discovery of the ultrasound, we can now know the gender of the baby before birth.

BALAND: Let me come back to religious morality for a few seconds. Religions provide us with a moral code. Religious people teach their children the differences between right and wrong. They inspire them to go to Heaven and scare them of Hell. They try their best for their children to have moral upbringing. How can anyone criticize such system and such upbringing?

SOHAIL: My criticism to religious parents is from a psychological point of view. I do not think it is a good idea to introduce small children to the concept of sin because concept of sin is associated with the concepts of fear and punishment. I do not think it is good for innocent children to believe that they will burn in hell. To me it sounds cruel. Bertrand Russell in his book, Why I am Not a Christian, states that he respected Buddha more than Christ, because Buddha did not propagate the concept of Hell. Russell believed that the concept of Hell was useful, neither for God nor for humans. Even in modern psychology reward is considered more potent motivating factor than punishment. Psychologists, who practice behavior modification, also rely more on rewards than punishments.  

I think we should find ways to inspire people to become better human beings. I have met many men and women in my clinical practice who were victims of their religious ideologies. They suffered from anxiety and depression because of their feelings of guilt and needed long term therapy to create guilt free lifestyles.

BALAND: If you are not in favor of the concepts of sin and virtue, punishment and reward, hell and heaven, then do you think human conscience has evolved enough that they would behave well without religious ideologies. Do you not think that if we remove Religions, human beings will become more aggressive and the ratio of violent crimes will increase in the society?

SOHAIL: I believe that most people in most communities and cultures are kind and caring and peace loving. They have a compassionate attitude towards others. There is only a minority that has no conscience. They are the ones who hurt and harm others. In the religious communities such people are declared sinners, while in the secular cultures they are considered criminals. Rather than taking such people to priests and pundits, rabbis and maulanas, in secular communities they are handed over to police officers, who take them to court and judges give their verdicts according to the laws of the land. We live in Canada so we respect Canadian laws. In Canada most people follow the law and the crime rate is very low. So I do not agree with the notion that the rate of violent crimes will increase if there were no religions. In secular communities, people have a compassionate attitude even with the criminals. When I used to work in forensic psychiatry those criminals, who suffered from mental illnesses were treated in psychiatric hospitals rather than sent to the prisons.   I believe we need to try to reform delinquents and criminals, rather than punishing them.

BALAND: You are talking about Canada where people are cultured and civilized. What about those countries where violent crimes are rampant? Don’t you think that some people need harsh punishments? I think they do.

SOHAIL: With due respect I do not agree with you. I believe human beings in all cultures need to be treated with respect, regard and compassion. There are very few people who are born psychopaths who have no conscience and feel no guilt, most people learn violence when they are exposed to violence as a child in their families, schools and communities. The Chinese philosopher, Confucius had shared his philosophy thousands of years ago. All over the world, that philosophy is known as the Golden Rule. According to this rule, Do onto others what you would like to be done onto you. This rule was the foundation of secular ethics far before heavenly religions came to the world. If we nurture our children and grandchildren with love and affection, then they will treat others with the same love and caring. But if we treat them with harshness and violence then they would treat others with the same violence. My late writer friend, Saeed Anjum used to say to Pakistani fathers, “If you want your son to become a prince when he grows up, you need to treat his mother like a queen. If you treat her like a slave, then you need to know that a child of a slave does not become a prince”.

BALAND: You shared in your autobiography that for the first twenty years of your life you were a theist, the second twenty years of your life, you were an atheist and in the last twenty years you have become a humanist. If you do not believe in scriptures and heavenly revelations then what is the basis of your ethics. Some believers believe that atheists have no morals, no ethics and no values. Is that concept true?

SOHAIL: Throughout the world there are two kinds of values that exist. The first kind is religious morality that is based on the holy books. The second kind is secular ethics that is based on modern science and medicine, psychology and philosophy. Secular ethics teaches us that for human beings to be kind, caring and compassionate, people do not have to be religious. Secular ethics respects human rights especially the rights of women, children and minorities. If we compare secular countries like Canada, Norway and Sweden, with religious countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia we can see that secular countries respect human rights far more than religious countries. As a humanist I believe that to become fully human, individually and collectively, we do not need heavenly religions. It is also interesting to note that in secular countries religious people are allowed to practice their religions in their personal lives but in religious countries atheists, agnostics, humanists and free thinkers keep their views secret as they are afraid to be charged with blasphemy. Their life can be in danger. They do not feel free to follow their conscience. There are so many innocent men and women in Pakistan who are behind bars because of the Blasphemy Law.

BALAND: Religious people say that if religious is a faith then atheism is also a faith. Do you agree with that point of view?

SOHAIL: No, I do not agree with this impression. Atheists do not believe in any faith. They follow rational and logical thinking. They have a scientific attitude towards life. They are against blind faith. When science discovers new laws of nature they change their opinions. Atheists think that the onus of proof of God lies with believers. It does not make sense to ask atheists to prove that God does not exist? As a humanist I do not believe in life after death because I have not talked to any dead person yet. If someone can make me talk to my deceased loving grandma, I might change my mind.

BALAND: If you do not have religious values then how do you separate between right and wrong, truth and false. What is your criterion, your yard stick?

SOHAIL: As a humanist psychotherapist I believe that there are two kinds of truths in this world: subjective truths and objective truths. Subjective truths are personal truths. I consider people’s religious beliefs as their subjective truths. And they have every right to have those beliefs. I once said that there are as many truths as human beings and as many realities as pairs of eyes in this world. The other kind of truths are objective truths. Science helps us move from subjective truths to objective truths. When a truth becomes an objective truth then people can agree on it. One such example is water. When science proved that water is H2O and is composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen, now anyone can repeat that experiment in any laboratory and prove the same objective truth. Scientists keep their minds open. When new discoveries come they leave the old ones and embrace the new ones. But religious people do not change their mind as their beliefs are based on blind faith. For human evolution we need to embrace new discoveries. A wise man once said, Human minds are like parachutes, they work only when they are open.

BALAND: Let us talk about humanism for a few minutes. You are a humanist. What difference do you see between a humanist and a secular humanist?

SOHAIL: Different philosophers have different, even diverging, views on this topic. One group of atheists believe that all humanists are atheists. But if we see the evolution of the philosophy of humanism we would discover that there was a time, humanism was part of religious ideologies. But in the last couple of centuries, because of the writings of scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre, their students, followers and disciples realized that we do not need religion to be good human beings. Sartre used to say that we do not need God to love our neighbor. Humanists believe that human consciousness and conscience have evolved to the level that human beings have outgrown organized religions. Now human beings can create personal and collective values according to their human conditions and then change those values with changing conditions.

Secular humanists also bring to our attention that religious people rely on supernatural causes to explain life while secular humanists rely only on natural causes. They do not believe in miracles and supernatural beings.

BALAND: If secular humanists do not believe in God and organized religions then how are they different than Buddhists?

SOHAIL: Most secular humanists that I know have a lot of respect for Socrates as well as Buddha. But Buddhism and Secular Humanism have one major difference. Buddhists believe in reincarnation while Secular Humanists do not believe in any form of life after death, whether reincarnation or Heaven and Hell.

BALAND: I see some similarities believers and non-believers, between religious and secular people. Religious people erect mosques and churches and temples while secular people erect schools and colleges and universities. Religious leaders offer sermons while Secular leaders present lectures in seminars. What do you think of those similarities?

SOHAIL: There is one primary thing that separates them. Religious people dream of creating theocratic states while secular people want to keep the church and the state separate. In the 21st century in the theocratic states, many human beings are deprived of human rights while in secular states all citizens have equal rights and privileges especially women, children and minorities. I consider that one difference as a primary difference between religious ideology and secular philosophy.

BALAND: Religious traditions are thousands of years old while secular and humanist traditions are only a couple of hundred years old. What do you see as the future of Secular Humanism?

SOHAIL: I am of the opinion that thousands of human beings all over the world are leaving religious tradition and embracing secular humanist tradition. International statistics prove my point. In 1900 only 1% of people all over the world announced that they had left organized religion but in 2000 the number of atheists and agnostics, humanists and freethinkers had increased to 20%. Scandinavian countries have the highest humanists. They are more than 50% in those countries. I believe organized religions are our past and secularism and humanism are our future.

BALAND: Thank you for joining me in today’s interview.

SOHAIL: You are more than welcome.


February 29th, 2016