Life is an unending series of choices. Some are rather trivial: should I have cereal or toast for breakfast? Why not both? Others have more impact: should I take this job? Should I marry this person?
None though is more important than the choice involved in religious belief. The question of God and our relationship to Him is central to our existence.
That is probably what drew me to Simon Cottee’s recent book, The Apostates. It was sitting on the library shelf, practically shouting “choose me!” Cottee is a British scholar who has been doing research involving Muslims who leave Islam to become atheists. The book is their story.
Unlike many academic works, The Apostates is a smooth and easy read. Cottee is content to let his subjects tell their stories, with his words constructing a narrative that brings understanding to the similarities in each tale.
Leaving Islam is unthinkable for most followers of the religion. They can’t comprehend why anyone would wish to do so. That is probably made truer by the simple fact that in much of the Muslim world leaving the faith, apostasy, carries with it a death sentence. To publicly renounce Islam is a form of suicide.
Which is why some of Cottee’s subjects lead double lives. They may be living in the UK or Canada, where their declaration of independence is unlikely to bring about their execution, but they still live in a Muslim subculture. There is nowhere else for them to go, even though they no longer believe.
I have met former Muslims who have become Christians, who realized that Jesus is truth and Mohammed was a liar. I am familiar with their stories. These stories though were new to me. These people left Islam and didn’t replace it with another faith. They are living in a spiritual void, though they probably wouldn’t describe it that way.
Their critique of Islam as a religion, the Quran and Mohammed as a prophet though shows remarkable similarity to what Christians believe about Islam. After careful examination of what they were raised to accept as truth, these Muslims have come to the realization that it is all fabrication. So, despite the cost to family and friends, they leave.
One of the things that really stood out for me in the accounts is the rigidity of Islam. I knew that already, but hearing story after story really drove home the point. Christianity thrives on doubt, on questions, on creative thought. Such is discouraged in Islam. The (mostly) young people in this study were basically told to shut up, stop asking questions and just believe. Or, if I may paraphrase, they were told to check their brains at the door. They opted instead to leave.
Life is a series of choices. All of us have to eventually address the question of who is Jesus Christ? The former Muslims in The Apostates now know what they are not. What they don’t know is what they want to become.
I like a book that makes me think. This one is worth reading.