Is Belief in God Morally Imperative?

When I say that belief in God is a moral issue more than an intellectual one, my understanding can be described in the following way:

Man has an inherent moral virtue of being grateful to his benefactors. We are grateful to our parents, teachers, relatives, friends etc for what they have done for us. This inner inclination to thank and pay back to those who have helped us is universally shared so strongly that those who go against its verdict are considered ungrateful, immoral people.

If the above-mentioned premise is valid, then it should proceed from it that the one who is responsible for conferring upon us all the blessings that we enjoy, including giving us the company of the people who deserve our grateful behaviour, should be the focus of our best emotions of gratitude. I concede that, to begin with, one might ask as to why should one thank Him if there were good reasons to believe that He doesn’t exist? The intellectual thought would indeed pose a challenge to the moral impulse in man, but the latter impulse would incline him to search for the right answer far more eagerly than he would do for a question whose answer he is seeking simply for intellectual curiosity. The earnestness in the quest for God should at least be the equivalent of the eagerness of a man who is tracing his parents about whom he is not sure if they were alive or not. My question is: Have the agnostics and the atheists explored enough to claim that they haven’t found anyone who was ultimately responsible for all the blessings they enjoy? Have they earnestly prayed to Him, even without formally believing in Him, as I did? If they would say that they did and yet didn’t get any response, I would say that, at best, I am seriously puzzled because my experience has been very different. When I prayed to Him, even when I thought that I didn’t formally believe in Him, His response was overwhelming. Why aren’t these others going through the same experience in response to the same behaviour? I am honestly baffled!

The fear factor can only be a starting point for believing in God. It is a very superficial reason to believe in Him over a long time. In fact, it is no reason to believe in Him. I would suggest that it is better not to believe in God than to believe in Him for fear of His probable appearance. I don’t believe in a God who should be feared like we fear a deadly monster. I believe in a loving and caring God, who more significantly, responds to my prayers. And I am dead sure that He does. But I am no one to accuse others of not trying enough or not praying to Him sincerely. That’s why I say that I am simply puzzled. What loss would occur to those who haven’t found God if they were to pray to Him in sincere earnestness?

However, for the prayer to cause connection with God, there should be one condition satisfied: One should submit oneself humbly before Him. You might say that it’s a funny proposal for someone who doesn’t even believe in Him to humble himself before God. I would respond by saying that when we feel morally obliged to be grateful to the source that arranged for us all that we have in this life, when we find that there were reasons to believe that He exists (even if there were other reasons that lead to a contrary conclusion), and when our vulnerability causes us to be fearful for our existence, could there be a better response from us than to humble ourselves before Him (or His supposed existence) and see what happens?

I have a feeling that the intellectual arguments of the agnostics and atheists deprive them of that all important feeling of humbleness that inspires one to look earnestly for God. But I can be wrong.

Quite often, I have observed people who claim not to believe in God deriding religion, religious people, and the concept of God. There is often a rejection of the religious concepts with disdainful sarcasm. There is a clear sense of intellectual superiority one can smell from the kind of remarks that one hears. Richard Dawkins has made strong claims in his book on the basis of scientific studies that the more intelligent a person, the more likely it is that he is going to be an atheist. My point is that what they consider to be their strength (intellect) may actually be causing their downfall by making them feel superior and thus causing them to be arrogant and therefore not humble.

Both gratefulness and humbleness are desirable virtues. Both ungratefulness and haughtiness are immoral tendencies. The one pair of attributes leads to God. The other takes away from God. That is why I am of the opinion that belief in God belongs primarily to the domain of morality; the intellectual aspect of it is much less significant than is often realized.

I am not claiming that religious people can’t be arrogant. Some of them are immensely arrogant. Nor am I claiming that all atheists are arrogant. Some of them are genuinely down-to-earth. While arrogant religiosity will find no place in the mercy of God, humble atheism will, hopefully, give way to true belief in Him.

15 thoughts on “Is Belief in God Morally Imperative?

  1. Umer Khan

    Assalam o Alaikum,

    I would just like to say that I have really enjoyed reading these two articles of yours. The highlight of them is where you say, a person should look for GOD as someone would look for his lost parents.

    And as I have learnt and as the intellect says, the love our parents give to us is in their innate, in other words, GOD has installed that love in our parents beforehand our birth, so that we may have no problem until we are young enough to look for ourself.

  2. Imran Faruqui

    Assalamu ‘alaykum Dr. Zaheer,

    “I am not claiming that religious people can’t be arrogant. Some of them are immensely arrogant. Nor am I claiming that all atheists are arrogant. Some of them are genuinely down-to-earth. While arrogant religiosity will find no place in the mercy of God, humble atheism will, hopefully, give way to true belief in Him.”

    There is no such thing as humble atheism; in reality it is only arrogance disguised as perceived humility. Atheism is the pinnacle manifestation of arrogance, wether apparent or not. Consider the following Qur’anic verse:

    Abdel Haleem, 16:18 “…As for those who deny the life to come, their hearts refuse to admit the truth and they are arrogant. There is no doubt that God knows what they conceal and what they reveal. He does not love the arrogant.”

    I think the verse speaks for itself. In fact, the first revealed sin is Arrogance – when Iblis (Satan) refused to bow down to Adam. Satan is our sworn enemy and he has clearly stated his objective in the following Qur’anic verse:

    Abdel Haleem, 15:39 “Iblis then said to God, ‘Because You have put me in the wrong, I will lure mankind on earth and put them in the wrong, all except Your devoted servants.”

    Satan’s objective is to lure mankind away from devotion to God. What can be further away from devotion to God than the disbelief in Him? It is actually arrogance of the highest order – Satan’s number one trait. Notice Satan never apologized or even asked for God’s forgiveness. Rather, Satan told God that God Himself has put him (Satan) in the wrong, and that Satan would rather go to hell than ask for God’s forgiveness. Now that’s arrogance of the highest order!

    Abdel Haleem 15:36 “My Lord, give me respite (from Hell) until the Day when they are raised from the dead.”

    When you speak of the humble atheist, I think what you really mean is that deep down he knows what the truth is – namely one and only one God – and over time he may come around to admitting it, just as the Qur’anic verse (16:18) above implies.

    Peace. Imran.

  3. Umer Khan

    Assalam o alaikum brother Imran,

    A humble atheist is the one who beleives strongly on one hand that there is no GOD, but on the other hand he keeps his mind open and keeps on looking for things which would prove him wrong.

    Arrogant are those religious/non-reigious people who knowingly reject the truth. They don’t want to review there opinions, and reject the use of intellect over emotions.

  4. Khalid Zaheer

    Dear Imran

    Thanks for your comments.

    I believe that there are two types of unbelievers: those whose lack of belief is because of lack of concentration and those whose disbelief is deap-seated in their hearts. While the absence of belief in the first category is temporary, especially when God’s message is being presented properly, the disbelief of the second category is permanent. And the important thing is that we don’t know which unbeliever belongs to which category.

    I think our endeavour should be to try to help non-believers to come close to our belief. In the process we may sometimes decide that we cannot convince some people because their attitude doesn’t motivate us to invite them. However, we can never declare anyone — and I repeat, ANYONE — a gone case who can be reformed. It is only for God to decide whether a certain person has denied faith out of arroganace and therefore doesn’t deserve to reform or he has denied it for lack of focus and therefore is likely to get the opportunity of correcting himself.

    Verse 16:18 is referring to the disbelievers of the category who deny the truth out of arrogance. It doesn’t include all unbelievers. I am sure, to begin with, Umar, Hamza, Khalid, and many other companions, may Allah be pleased with them, may have apparently denied the hereafter, but they later got the privilege of believing properly.

  5. Salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Dr. Khalid,

    I have not seen so shallow and plain a defense of existence of God as you has shown here. If Atheists and Muslims as you claim are morally neutral in all other matters, what led you to believe that morality alone is keeping them away from believing in God? Furthermore, when Quran urges men to ponder, it is not a call to morality simply; it is a call to intellectual use of reason (there is another reason in post modernism literature i.e. instrumental reason). We can see a relation between intellectual use of reason and morality, but that relation is present in almost all other matters. It is a general relationship between intellect and morality. Better put, morality as an element will be present in any other focal point too. However, Quranic focus is on intellect. Morality is sometimes relative. Intellect is never relative. It is absolute.

    Morality is best discussed by Kant. He said intentions define actions and not the consequences and not even compassion. He said it because compassion is temporary, a particular state and is not absolute. However, intentions best define the morality of actions.

    The fundamental value is freedom. Happiness results from it. Justice comes in to protect it. But, the fundamental value is freedom. Men, we see become unjust using that freedom as speculated by Angels as well. Can we provide justice, happiness in a paradigm of absolute freedom? Even when men have little freedom in this world, we have seen it becoming unjust and then depriving the mission of providing maximum collective happiness for all.

    The fundamental question is that can we provide perfect justice in this world. Can we have maximum happiness as we envision in this world. Are we absolutely free in this world? That is a better constructed argument. Now, here is the answer to that:

    History does not give us a regular pattern of human struggle towards a just and fair political, social and economic setup as described by Marx. Kant also did not tell when we will be able to say that we are living in an enlightened age. These views of Marx and Kant were more relevant to Europe only. Muslim world provided a socially, economically and politically just system to the world for at least 50 years in the rule of Caliphates. In the period after caliphates too, Muslim world provided most things Kant asked for in an enlightened age.

    Kant does not give the method by which we prioritize Maxims. For instance, truth and justice both are important moral values. But, what should we do if there is a conflict between the two? For illustration, if a murderer is known to us as murderer but we do not have witnesses to prove him as murderer in the court of law. Should we give false testimony to convict him!
    Islam helps us to prioritize Maxims. Islam shows us that this world is not fair in all respects. A morally upright man is not necessarily the most honorable man in the world. A morally upright trader is not necessarily the richest in the world. Not all murderers have been or will be convicted in this world. Even if all murderers were convicted, it will not be ‘naturally’ possible to give equitable punishment to the murderers who have killed more than one human being. Even if it was possible, it will not be possible to reverse the immoral actions. What happened has happened and can not be reversed. Death is the plainest truth and if justice can not be provided in the life of a person and that being too not equitable; then, is it not rational if we believe in life after death where everyone would be given equal rewards and equal punishment for his acts and God by his infinite wisdom would be able to judge without any doubt the intentions behind the actions and justice will be provided to each and everyone.
    Furthermore, only with the knowledge of life after death and the belief in God, can one decide to act morally as an end in itself and not merely as means to a material end. Moral act in Islam also is a means to an end i.e. to achieve eternal success and blessings of God. But, it is not a material end confined to this life only. In this way, the utilitarian mind is also satisfied as happiness is a relative term not achieved only by material things. The fact that moral actions even if they are not rewarded in this world will be rewarded in life hereafter satisfies the utilitarian mind.
    We know what is right and what is wrong through our conscience. In matters where our conscience does not guide us, God will intervene and guide us through His prophets. Therefore, Prophets guide us in matters where we might not have reached the right decision about right and wrong through our conscience. For instance, interest, gambling and liquor. They might seem pretty right. But, God tells us in Holy Quran that there is more harm in these things than good for you. Today, we are seeing interest based system and gambling (speculative financial instruments) are causing severe disorder in the economy.

  6. Faisal

    What a strong and logically appealing argument presented by Dr.Khalid Zaheer in this writing and last one (God’s Delusion). Point 1 , that , Belief in God is more a moral issue than intellectual and second that, God Almigthy does’nt show His path for the arrogant and the so-called scientific believers of cause and effect theory…… And from this, i also, get another point, why Tasawwuf, and its different practices have been refuted by Dr.Khalid-which, i think, are more a personal experience , contrary to the academic premise put by Dr.Khalid Zaheer.

  7. Khalid Zaheer

    Assalamo Alaikum Salman

    Thanks for a strong criticism on my article. It is only through critical examination that we can improve ourselves. I would however like to mention two things.

    It is neither true that deductive reasoning is superior to inductive reasoning nor the other way round. Both have their significance and the Qur’an has employed both. It employs deductive reasoning when it invites the attention of the reader towards design in our universe to marvel at God’s attributes; it resorts to inductive reasoning when it refers to the individual’s experience of getting responses to his prayers. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that while deductive logic invites the attention of the individual to think about the reality of our life, inductive reasoning strengthens the conclusions reached through it. But for some people it could be simply deductive reasoning that might turn out to be decisive.

    The claim that the question of God is a moral question is not mine. God has made it Himself: While talking about the basic moral principles good Muslims must follow, the Qur’an mentions the obligation of looking after old parents as the second most significant. The most important one is to worship none other than Allah. (17:)What was the point in demanding worship of someone whose identity was to be discovered intellectually alone in a way that if someone wasn’t able to find Him, he wouldn’t carry any moral blame? To worship God alone precludes the fact that He is known. And if He is not known to someone, he will soon discover Him, if he uses his intellect morally correctly. Moral correctness of the intellect is the key in the quest for God.

    Khalid Zaheer

  8. Imran Faruqui

    Assalamu ‘alaykum Dr. Zaheer,

    I think it sometimes slips our minds that the best guidance is God’s guidance in the Qur’an. Indeed, I have found there is not a single situation in life where the Qur’anic guidance does not apply. As an exercise, please allow me the opportunity to assess your statement below in light of Qur’anic guidance:

    “I think our endeavour should be to try to help non-believers to come close to our belief. In the process we may sometimes decide that we cannot convince some people because their attitude doesn’t motivate us to invite them.”

    The first part of your statement, “to help non-believers come to close to our belief” is indeed supported by the following Qur’anic verse,

    Abdel Haleem 41:33 “Who speaks better than someone who calls people to God, does what is right and says, ‘I am one of those devoted to God?’…”

    Indeed, it is our responsibility to call people to God not only through the Qur’anic message, but also by our own actions and affirmation as stated in the above verse. Calling people to God through preaching, but without actually living by the Qur’an would be ineffective and hypocritical. It requires both. This in fact is the key problem with Muslims around the world today; we do not LIVE by the Qur’an.

    Now, let’s take a look at the second part of your statement, “In the process we may sometimes decide that we cannot convince some people because their attitude doesn’t motivate us to invite them.”

    While I think your intentions are noble, the underlying assumption is that it is our job to ‘convince’ people of the Truth. But the Qur’an frames our responsibility in perspective; it is not our job to convince non-believers of the truth, our job is only to convey the message. It is God who guides whom He wills. Consider the following Qur’anic verses (Abdel Haleem):

    42:48 “We have not sent you (Prophet) to be their guardian: your ONLY duty is to deliver the message…”

    64:12 “…If you turn away, remember that Our Messenger’s duty is ONLY to make plain his message.”

    5:92 “…if you pay no heed, bear in mind that the SOLE duty of Our Messenger is to deliver the message clearly.”

    5:99 “The Messenger’s duty is ONLY to deliver the message: God knows what you reveal and what you conceal.”

    16:35 “…Are the messengers obliged to do anything other than deliver (their message) clearly?”

    If the Messengers were the best example of people, then should we do anything different? Indeed, the ‘convincing’ is God’s part, not ours. Consider the following Qur’anic verses (Abdel Haleem),

    14:4 “…But still God leaves whoever He will to stray, and guides whoever He will: He is the Almighty, the All Wise.”

    16:37 “Though you (Prophet) may be eager to guide them, God does not guide those who misguide (others), nor will they have anyone to help them.”

    This is why I think entering into debates with non-believers or people of other scriptures is a waste of time – for debate automatically imply ‘convincing’ – which as we seen above, is not supported by the guidance of the Qur’an. The prophets after all never engaged in theological debates with non-believers. They simply proclaimed the message – it is for God to decide who will take His message to heart.

    Peace. Imran

  9. Ali

    Salman, a counter question to your argument of “If Atheists and Muslims as you claim are morally neutral in all other matters, what led you to believe that morality alone is keeping them away from believing in God?” is – why a person always likes that he/she shall get full quantity after purchase, but the same shoopkeeper cheats others by weighin less ? why evey one agree, thy shall not lie,thy shall not kill…but still having this same neutral morality,people digress from it. Similar is the case for belief in God, some do and others don’t-but this does’nt mean morality premise is wrong.

  10. Salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Dr. Khalid,

    Deductive and inductive reasoning have different meanings in logic, science, statistics and philosophy. It also has a relative meaning. If i ignore literature review, i would be doing an inductive study, but for others, it would be deductive. However, i always want meaningful discussion than just looking at the construction of arguments we make. It was not a criticism at all. I thought it was an effort for a better explanation added to your article.

    Issue of believing in the existence of God requires morality in the intellectual pursuits. In everything we do, we require honesty to seek the truth like the existence of God which is not as evident a truth as matters we directly observe and experience, but it is still a truth and we can appreciate it through honest research. So, it requires both honesty (an issue of morality) and some reasoning (an intellectual issue as the matter has to be believed in by looking at related arguments and not as explicitly observable as day and night). However, to make your point clear, you mean to say that we do not require rocket science or knowing the complexity of planetary sciences, physics etc to prove and appreciate the existence of God. God’s existence is provable by common sense and observable “related but not direct” experiences and facts. The above mentioned sciences just answer “how” and do not at all (if all or any one of them is or will be proven to be true) contradict the answer to “why” which religion provides.

  11. Salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Brother Ali,

    I am not saying it is one way or the other. It is a bit of both. Brother Ali, with all due respect, you need to improve your argument. It has some fallacies.

    Your example is neutral to a religious paradigm. A cheater shopkeeper might be a Muslim or a non-Muslim. An honest counterparty can be a Muslim or a non-Muslim as well. By inductive arguments, i just referred to the weak arguments that require support of other slightly stronger arguments to support the conclusion. Deductive arguments alone suffice and do not need any inductive argument to support the same conclusion. Deductive and inductive do not just mean primary and secondary sources of knowledge. Even when they mean that as in limited usage, they are confined to a human paradigm and humans do not know everything. God knows everything, that is why, every argument for Him would be deductive (in a sense that it is reality itself and alone can suffice). Therefore, when we use God’s arguments as from Holy Quran, we are using the deductive arguments.

    Coming back to your post, Morality needs to be looked in absolute sense and in a model where there are no constraints, circumstances and choices that we need to make without absolute knowledge.

    Kant said that compassion does not define morality as compassion is volatile and not consistent. Morality needs to be universal and absolute. He said that morality of an action can not also be judged by way of consequences. If we speak truth, we can not base it on the premise of getting a better consequence for it. It is due to the fact that an adverse consequence would alter our action too in this kind of explanation.

    He said what defines morality is that “what we want the others to do to us”. It is also akin to the Golden principle of Christianity. We want to speak truth because we want others to do to us the same, we do not want to kill because we do not want others to kill us.

    Differentiating between right and wrong is the fundamental common attribute all humans share. Not all have same beauty, strength, effective body organs, talent, money etc. But, we all can differentiate between right and wrong. Please, make a difference between action and the ability to differentiate between right and wrong i.e. identifying the correct moral behavior than actually conducting it through action. Please make it separate the difference of circumstances and the constraints of choice. When you do that, you will see that differentiating between right and wrong is the universal feature we share.

    I have given a criticism on his explanation too in my post earlier (Comment # 6). It gives us the logical discussion of existence of God and life hereafter. Please read that.

  12. safi ahmed

    Few comments on brother Imran about CONVINCING.

    Convincing is a part of conveying any message. What God stopped Prophet Mohammed PBUH was “to force your ideas” and not to become SAD if they do not BELIEVE.

    other wise to convince with HIKMA is recommended and it was practised by Prophet Mohammed PBUH and his SAHABIS. You just read the history.

    Peace.. Safi

  13. Salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Dr. Khalid,

    Since you provided a reference from the Quran, i had to look into the issue again and analyze the viewpoint that existence of God is more a moral issue than an intellectual one. We agreed (though with slight differences in description and detail) that morality and intellect both are part and parcel of search for God. However, in last two days, i came to realize few weaknesses in my viewpoint.

    If intellect is the most important thing, then God might have given all the evidences from the scientific facts. However, God has addressed our conscience is well. I thought it was a result i.e. a byproduct. I thought it was like God provided us first with the evidences from the material world with a scientific focus and after that addressed the conscience. But, God has made direct address to the conscience at several places in isolation in the Quran.

    Even when God has hinted us towards scientific facts, God has chosen the details with which we were familiar at that time and with which ordinary people are familiar even today. Therefore, in a subtle way, the emphasis is on morality in observing those facts that have been pointed out. Since these scientific facts are observable/learnable and appreciable by even ordinary man; therefore, it is not the intellectual use of reason which has been recommended as only the common sense knowledge has been given to which readers/recipients are used to and familiar with. The real emphasis is on morality in such a way of study. In seeking truth, one will indeed go about doing some research and choose a method for it. But, what is truly recommended is the fact that we remain moral in our pursuit of truth.

    Furthermore, it is morality which will instill and start a thinking process towards finding answers to life, its existence, its purpose, its meaning etc. Even an intellectual genius can use all the intelligence to produce scientific theories, inventions, concepts and breakthroughs without seeking the true meaning of his existence, nature, destiny, purpose etc if he was immoral in his pursuit of truth. Therefore, morality is needed to instill a morally guided unbiased search for answers and these answers are provided within us (soul), material dispensation (Aafaq-o-Anfas) and our intellect. Being moral is in everyone’s control, but being an intellectual genius, it is not in everyone’s control. That is why, only commonly observable and appreciable facts have been provided by Quran for Itmam-e-Hujjat on direct recipients of Prophets in this world and on all others for the life hereafter.

    However, I would like to bring your attention to another fact that the verse you quoted is concerned with polytheism. I think polytheism is almost altogether a morality issue. It is because a polytheist believes in creation, creator, he being creature etc. Whereas, an atheist by not believing in any structure, philosophy or comprehensive doctrine and creation concept, is morally more genuine than a polytheist provided he is an atheist by way of having not received the true message of God or having not understood it completely and only partially or incorrectly and only God knows about the exact status of his knowledge and genuine ignorance and we are no one to speculate in individual cases. Do you think that existence of one and true God is a moral issue for both Atheists and Polytheists in an equal way or is polytheism more a case of immorality than atheism?

    In the end, I must say that one of the good things I have developed is to give away the weak arguments, weak reasoning, weak concepts and replace them with better explanations even right at the time of dialogue and not even wait for a minute to accept my mistake if it gets clear to me. I owe for this good trait to Javed Ahmed Ghamidi Sahab. I have learnt 6 years in Madarsa. I learnt many good things there, but, never learnt a lesson so beautiful to be able to read with genuine unbiasness.

  14. joudat

    Respectable Zaheer sahib I really keep you in very high esteem for I learn so much from your writings. Your approach and the way you deal with criticism is so dear to me and wish all Muslims had the same approach. I just went through your this article and have observation if you would like to answer it. You say that belief in God is moral issue…. for the reason that we should be grateful to our creator. Are we not naively assign creations’ attributes to the creator? Happiness, anger, sadness, depression, being slighted, disgraced, not respected or feel high on being respected etc etc are the attributes we human are suppose to have ,why God who is suppose to be the ONE AND ONLY should have such petty feelings? Are we saying that GOD is a narcissistic? and need a constant narcissistic supply? I know you have sweet and nice answers to all of these and that is why would love to have them put before the readers. Thanks wasalam

  15. Khalid Zaheer

    Dear Joudat

    I am sorry for the late reply. I am thankful for your compliments which I am sure I don’t deserve.

    God indeed is one and the only. What attributes does he possess is a question only He Himself can properly answer. We learn from the Qur’an that He has no needs, therefore He is not likely to get upset if we dodn’t thank Him. However, thank Him we must, because that is His right. When we know that He has given us all that we possess without deserving anything, it is but natural that we thank Him. If we behave inappropriately, He is likely to punish us, because He is fair. If He doesn’t do so, He will let the attitude of the obedient people go waste. Moreover the unsrupulous performers can’t blame Him for their poor behaviour and the consequent punishment because they were properly equipped and adequately informed to act well. If yone will have an excuse to present, it will be properly heard and compassionately treated.

    Now then, where does the question of narcissism arise? Whatever God does or promises He will do in the future is based on His attributes of justice, wisdom, compassion etc. It is a mistake to assume that God is like us. He is not. We need to concern ourselves with our attitude and performance and not worry about why He does this our doesn’t do that. There are many things about Him we may not be able to fully comprehend in this life because of our limitations. In all such matters, we need to assume positive things about Him.

    It is not a good idea for a son to assume that his parents did good things for him because of their own needs and desires. Having knowledge of the fact that they were kind to him, he should pay them back in the same or better way.

    Khalid Zaheer

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