Imprisoned Thinking


“The most dangerous prison is the one where you can’t see the bars.”

Dr. Tariq Ramadan

These are confusing times. A short reflection on what one stands for and what they believe in is bound to generate a self-induced state of anxiety. This is especially the case for many of those raised in traditional households who either live in the West, or are indirectly influenced by Western-based post-Christendom influenced secularized ideals through mass communication and media outlets.

Since the very beginning of recorded history humans have been asking deep existential questions and providing whatever answers they could come up with to make sense of what it means to be human. Sometimes these answers were inspired by different forms of what are considered Revelation, and at others they were not. Many people choose not to concern themselves with these questions on the basis of their abstractness and apparent irrelevance to their daily lives. However, whether one chooses to concern themselves with these questions or not, they will lead their lives based on certain answers to them. Although they seem abstract, how these questions are answered will have direct application on how one views the world and their relationship to it. So it becomes a matter of whether one decides to actively answer these questions, or to have them answered for them by others.

Inherited Beliefs

A common atheist critique that continues to be brought up against believers is about the inheritance of belief. A follower of any religion today is most likely so not because they made an active choice to believe in their religion. They just happened to be born into it. Most Christians are Christians because they had Christian parents. Most Muslims are Muslims because they were born into Muslim households. The same goes for Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and any other tradition. But it’s not surprising that by and large people follow in the footsteps of their parents when it comes to religious affiliations. It’s also not very enlightening to point such a trend out. Numerous influential figures, believers and atheists alike, have remarked about this. Moreover, pointing out that belief, or disbelief for that matter, is inherited doesn’t speak to the truth-value of it. All we can learn is that we cannot use inheritance of belief as a judgment criterion for whether it’s true or not. It doesn’t make a true belief less true to learn that one has inherited it from their parents. It also doesn’t make a false belief more false.

Prophet Muhammad PBUH said, “Every newborn is born upon a natural innate disposition (Fitra), and their parents will then turn them into a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian.” Many Muslims have mistranslated this Hadith to make it say that every newborn is born a Muslim. But that’s not what the Hadith says in Arabic. Although Islam is espoused as a religion that’s in accordance with the Fitra as Prophet Muhammad PBUH stated in another Hadith, the natural innate disposition he talked about here was the recognition of the metaphysical realm. It’s a simple belief in one God that is unadulterated with discursive theology and back and forth argumentations and philosophical proofs for His existence. This is something that seems to be supported by various psychological experiments and brain scans, and it’s established well enough that the question being asked now is not whether or not we’re born believers, but why we are. At that point it becomes a matter of which worldview one adheres to that will then guide their proposed reasons for it. Nevertheless, as the child grows their specific beliefs and religious indoctrination are then primarily shaped by their parents.

So Richard Dawkins is right to object at calling a child a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jewish child. Such children should instead be referred to as children of Muslim, Christian, or Jewish parents. This is congruent with the Islamic teaching that children are not taken into account before they reach the age of religious legal responsibility because they’re not in a position to make informed decisions. According to Islamic teachings a child that passes away is saved irrespective of what their parents’ beliefs or religious affiliations were.

Education, or Indoctrination?

Although blind inheritance of values remains the norm, it was more so the case before the advent of the Internet and the immense effect of the information age. Nowadays it’s become more common to hear of young people rejecting their upbringings and defecting in one direction or the other. This typically happens when they enrol in college or spend a lot of time online. The question that presents itself is, are these young people responding to challenges to their values by actively exercising their intellects to assess their respective beliefs, or are they simply dropping their inherited beliefs to pick up different ones all the while being deluded into thinking they thought things through when in reality they did not? More often than not, the latter represents the state of affairs.

Take an example from education that portrays this in a glaring way. A commonly used introductory text on the philosophy of religion is Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings edited by Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger. Part One of this text is titled “The Nature of Religion” and the very first essay the student will read is titled “An Evolutionary Account of Religion” by Daniel C. Dennett. For those who may not know, Dennett is an American philosopher who is often referred to as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The problem is not in having an atheist give a naturalistic account of religion, which assumes it to be an adaptive process of evolution that mankind happens to be stuck with. The problem is in having this article be the very first one a student of introductory philosophy of religion gets assigned to read and write an essay on to show they properly understood what Dennett said. It’s a setting in of a cognitive frame through which the student will now view religion. The later articles on rational proofs for the existence of God and for religion having a metaphysical origin will no longer be assessed on their own merit. Rather, they will be viewed as an ad hoc attempt at explaining what mankind has randomly gotten stuck with through evolution.

It’s not an accident that Dennett’s article is the one chosen to lead off this text. His philosophical interests are on consciousness, Free Will, philosophy of the mind, and giving explanations for how humans make up all kinds of rationalizations for their non-rational and irrational acts. The student is effectively given an atheism-based naturalistic lens to evaluate religion without realizing it. Instead of giving the student different worldview accounts and the basis for each one, an act that will most likely put the students in the intellectual driver seat to assess for themselves each worldview on its own merit, they’re put into a box. Rather than being educated, they’re being indoctrinated. To reinforce an illusion of knowledge, they’re academically rewarded.

The example on philosophy of religion is a vivid one. However, most students don’t concern themselves with courses on philosophy and may never be directly exposed to such material. This doesn’t mean they’re scot-free. Although philosophy deals with the abstract concepts underlying different worldview accounts, the prevailing worldview will directly assert itself through other subjects studied. For instance, science is not taught as science per se, but as a philosophy of life. Nothing exemplifies this more than the theory of evolution. On the surface it seems like a struggle between science and religion. In its essence, however, it’s a struggle between a group that wants to turn science into theology, and another group that wants to repeat the mistake of the Church during the Dark Ages when it turned theology into science.

Although a student may not be directly studying philosophy, the subject matter they choose to study is based on a philosophical worldview. Whether it’s biology, cosmology, neuroscience, political science, economics, women studies, sociology, or anything else, the paradigm these subjects operate in can lead one to experience a conflict between what they come to learn through their formal education, and the worldview they grew up with. This typically happens for children of immigrant parents coming from traditional Eastern societies to live in the West. For example, a course on political science in China will expose the subject matter for the students through a communist lens. The same course offered in the West will teach it from a democratic perspective. The information may very well be the same in both courses. But the package that information is presented in will most certainly be drastically different.

There is a difference between the hard data, the information, the direct evidence one obtains, and the knowledge that is derived and inferred from it all. It’s one thing to describe phenomena as they take place, but quite another to package it together in a way that offers a worldview. Many of the paradoxes and confusions experienced by young people today are a result of the lack of such distinctions. Education may seem to be an objective passing on of knowledge. Careful analysis will reveal it to be an account of what someone or some committee has determined to be a “correct” subjective packaging of knowledge to be passed on to students.

Confirming Biases

Some may look to the Internet as a way out of their educational, i.e., indoctrinational paradigms. It seems to serve as an open source of information where one can be exposed to everything. Unfortunately, that appearance might be deceiving. Eli Pariser gave a TED talk in February 2011 titled “Beware online filter bubbles” in which he showed with examples how when we think we’re being objective in researching various topics online, we’re actually receiving a personalized list of search results. Each one of us is getting a tailored order of information online that acts to reinforce our own ideologies and biases, all the while most of us being oblivious to it. Some think that clearing their Internet history or logging off should be sufficient to counteract this personalization. However, not only is personalization based on previous Internet history, but it’s also based on the type of computer being used (PC or Mac), the browser (Chrome, Explorer, FireFox, etc.), time of day, current location, and more than 50 other signals that Google and other companies look at to tailor things just right for each one of us. This extends beyond active searches and covers what recommendations are uploaded when the browser is launched, including which news articles are presented, what topics are read, and anything else that the background algorithms determine each one of us should be exposed to. Here’s Pariser’s 9-minute-long talk:

The interesting thing about the self-tailoring of information provided by the Internet is that it doesn’t start from a vacuum. It picks up on the user’s biases and merely enforces them by giving the user more material to work with. This is exactly the same with bookstore retailers like Amazon, who provide recommendations not only based on the genre of books one most frequently reads, but more specifically based on the ideological leanings one has within that genre. Eventually, they end up inadvertently researching not to learn about something new and intellectually challenging, but to confirm their own biases and strengthen their arguments. It’s about arming oneself with more information to confirm for themselves whatever opinions they already hold.

Most of those espousing themselves as “free thinkers” are deluded. The term itself is nonsensical because it implies that one is not conforming to any rules or paradigms. No such thing is possible. The function of the intellect is to deliberate between alternatives, but in doing its deliberation, it needs a basis to make it’s assessments from – a set of principles that it works with. This should not be confused with dogmatic adherence to ideologies. Without principles one will generate delusional paradoxes out of nothing and conclusions that collapse under the most superficial of critiques. But before one is able to deliberate, they must be aware of the existence of alternatives. They must also be cognizant of the paradigm they’re operating in.

We’re subject to an education system that serves more as an indoctrination system, and a personalized online experience that maintains a bubble for each user. Inheritance of beliefs is not restricted to parental inheritance. It’s taken a new and more sophisticated form to give everyone an illusion of thinking and deliberation. If you’re deliberating different perspectives that originate from one side, you’re merely choosing where on the one side you like to be. It’s an illusion of choice. If you’re using your intellect to choose the best articulation for a position you’ve passively picked up through your formal education and what has been filtered for you through your online experience, you might want to think things through once again. If you’re absolutely sure about yourself without having ever gone through an existential crisis, you might just be deeply embedded in dogmatic slumbers. If you’re not aware of any of this taking place, you’ve been living in a prison with invisible bars that have been limiting your intellectual freedom without you realizing it. Do you believe what you believe because you actually decided to believe it, or have you been duped into thinking you did? It’s time to wake up and smell the qahwa!


An audio recorded version of Imprisoned Thinking


p.s. This is a short talk given by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the importance of understanding philosophy to discern what underlies each worldview.