Some Thoughts On Practical Atheism – Dr. Mohsen Javadi
This is a partial translation of a very lengthy interview given by Dr. Mohsen Javadi, that was published two years ago in Iṭelā’āt Ḥikmat wa Ma’rifat. I have edited and translated it in a way to make it as comprehensible as possible in English.
Dr. Mohsen Javadi is a seminary trained, senior professor of philosophy of ethics at Qom University. He has numerous published books and articles in the Persian language, and as well as a number of papers in English. I am attaching one of his English papers, Moral Epistemology in Muslim Ethics, which is a good introductory paper for those who have no background on the subject. Click here to download PDF.
Dr. Mohsen Javadi: To briefly summarize practical atheism: it is the fact that a large portion of people despite believing in God, Prophethood, and even the Hereafter, are not bound to their religious beliefs when it comes to their actions and ethics, to the extent that there is no apparent difference between them and atheists. Their life does not show any signs of God, or any attention towards Prophethood, the Sharī’ah, or fear of the Hereafter. In fact, it shows signs of individualism and heedlessness of the accountability of the Hereafter.
The topic of practical atheism has existed amongst different religions, and even Pope Benedict XVI has alluded to it in one of his letters. There are many who are theologically Jewish, Christian and Muslim, but in their lives, they prefer those actions that appear to give a scent of atheism and in fact, their lives are no different than atheists. At times you will find them even more heedless than atheists when it comes to fulfilling their material desires. These people can be categorized as believers theoretically and theologically, but practically and ethically they are atheists or materialists.
The reason why I initially got interested in the topic of practical atheism is due to the terms practical and theological materialism which Shahīd Muṭahharī uses in his work The Causes Responsible for Materialist Tendencies in the West. Even though he himself never uses the term practical and theoretical atheism, he does put forth the question regarding the difference between practical and theoretical materialism. This led me to further research the works of other thinkers, including Christian intellectuals and saw that in some letters and books written by some Cardinals of the Vatican, the topic of practical atheism is being discussed with a lot of rigor. More so than theoretical atheism and lack of faith amongst people regarding God and Jesus, they are more concerned with Christians drowning in the worship of the world and its material pleasures and their lack of attention to the real values of Christianity. One of them specifically points out that the problem for Christianity today is not absolute Doxastic atheism or Doxastic materialism, rather it is the popularity of practical atheism.
The Oxford Dictionary also divides the term materialism into two: practical materialism and theoretical materialism and defines them. The definition given is very similar to how Shahīd Muṭahharī explains the terms, but today they refer to ethical and practical materialism with the term practical atheism. The dictionary first defines ethical materialism and says that it is a way of life where the value of anything is not beyond its material value, such as money and power. No spiritual or metaphysical matter has any say or preference in this life and so if any friendship, love affair, sacrifice, chastity, modesty, that has no immediate material benefits, do not have value. Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary then goes on to discuss practical and absolute atheism as well.
In the Islamic world, as mentioned earlier, Shahīd Muṭahharī has discussed this notion, however a lot of his thoughts have been taken from his teacher ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī, but he has discussed them much better. However, this wasn’t the first time the topic has been investigated, and the actual topic is very old. The idea of a scholar who does not act has existed for a long time.
Man’s “self” viz-a-viz faith and atheism can be divided into four scenarios. Before mentioning these four scenarios, it is imperative to know a little about the qualities of the “self”. All human activity is rooted in the self. This self has one reality, but its faculties and abilities are different. The self from the perspective of it being the basis of contemplation is termed the mind, from the perspective of it being the basis of emotions and feelings is termed the heart, and from the perspective of it being the basis of any action is termed the will. These are all different aspects of the self.
Within religious scripture, the self is sometimes referred to as the commanding soul (nafs al-ammārah) as far as it is interested in committing evil deeds, but it is referred to as the reproaching soul (nafs al-lawwāmah) when discussed in light of its interest towards achieving good and performing pious deeds. In actuality, according to the opinion of philosophers like Ibn Sīnā, it is these different states and dimensions in humans and animals that are the cause of willful actions – so, it is for this very reason why we call them things that possess life. This is while things that do not possess life, there is only motion seen from them, as that is how they have been designed and there is no expectation from them to perform and do anything other than what they have been designed to do. Whereas animals and – higher than them – humans are created such that there is an expectation from them to perform different acts, sometimes contradictory actions, sometimes actions that go against their own nature and so on.
The ideal state for an active soul to be in is the state of harmony. For example, if something has priority for the emotional side of the self, it should not result in a conflict, contradiction and lack of harmony another aspect of the self. When there is lack of harmony within the self, it leads to a violent state for it. Aristotle divides motion into two, natural and violent motion. Natural motion is that which is in accordance with the nature of a thing, whereas violent motion is that where an external force is applied to something for a motion to occur in it.
The important point here is that the natural function of the self is to remain in harmony between its theoretical and practical faculties. If its theoretical faculty, which is concerned with uncovering realities, uncovers the divine realities and their important status amongst other realities, its practical faculties should help them play a central role in practice when it comes to God and attaining His satisfaction.
Now let us look at the four possible scenarios a human can be in, in relation to practical and theoretical atheism.
First, we can conceptualize someone who theoretically has faith, but also personifies their faith ethically through their actions. Not only do they consider God to be the very premise and foundation of existence, but also the basis of all good actions and therefore practically live a life of a believer. In this scenario, there is complete harmony between the theoretical and practical faculties and such a person is truly wise, because other than possessing a deep understanding of existence, they are also able to look beyond the material world and benefit from the spiritual depths practically. This harmony results in a tranquillity and calmness, and in fact in Qurānic jargon, such a person possesses al-nafs al-muṭmainnah. When such a person theologically believes that [Quran 29:64] verily the Home in the Hereafter, that is life indeed, they also attach themselves to the life of the Hereafter practically and emotionally and put aside the pleasures of this world for the pleasures of the Hereafter. They consider this temporary realm to be a provision for the Hereafter and do not become heedless of it or only care about life in this realm.
A second scenario is when a person does not have any faith in God and the Hereafter and their practical life also resembles such belief. They show no signs of faith or God in their practical life. For such a person, God, the Sharī’ah, the Hereafter, none of these matters provide any motivation and they behave in accordance to their material preferences and prefer them over all other things. Things like justice, humanity, friendship and kindness to others only have value when there is a material benefit to them. Even though this scenario is a false and unpleasant state to be in, it is a kind of harmony between the theoretical and practical faculties of the self, as there is no conflict within the self. Such a person is limited to just the physical world, and to whatever extent possible, they do not abide by any moral restrictions unless there is a give and take opportunity present in it for them. They abide by a moral code as long as it leads them to their material goals. Such a state is generally referred to as deliberate egoism, and such a person considers anything that safeguards their own personality and the personalities around them who play a positive role in their lives to be morally good, but beyond that ethics do not have any independent intrinsic value. Whenever they get an opportunity to do away with ethics, they will do so as long as it does not harm their own material interests. In this scenario, the heart and the will of a human in both their theoretical and practical dimensions are in harmony with one another, so a dual personality is not created by it
In certain cases, we find that the theoretical and practical dimensions of a human are not in harmony and there is a conflict between them. The next two scenarios are cases where there is no harmony. Such cases are complicated to understand and due to this, they require a little more explanation than the previous two scenarios.
In the third case, a person is theoretically an atheist and does not believe in God or the Hereafter. However, they live their lives as if they are believers. They are selfless and make sacrifices for others, their moral life is not limited to just material pleasures. They are ready to sacrifice themselves for others and have not sacrificed their morals for the fulfillment or acquisition of a better material life. So, we have a scenario where a person is theoretically an atheist and has no belief in God and the meta-physical, but in their actions, they choose to do actions while looking beyond just the physical realm and these actions have a scent of immortality and divinity.
You have people who do not believe in religious propositions but live their life in accordance with ethical and spiritual values and also believe that seeking the truth itself has a lot of value. Despite being atheists, they are not power-hungry, nor do they worship wealth, but rather act ethically and are ready to make sacrifices for others. Such people do not resist the truth if they encounter it, meaning if they were to come across the truth about the meta-physical, they would accept it. We can find instances of such people in a number of irreligious societies, such as some of the Communists and their struggle for justice, equality, and sacrifice, which are all signs of a spiritual life.
Even though servitude to God and worshipping Him is central to living a spiritual life, there are other things such as helping others selflessly which are all instances of spirituality. Imām ‘Alī (a) in his last statement emphasizes prayers and worship but also emphasizes helping the orphans and neighbours which indicates that these are all instances of spirituality.
However, the natural course of affair expects there to be harmony between the theoretical and practical dimensions of a human. If a person is theoretically an atheist, then the expectation is that this should be personified in their actions. If a person does not believe in a realm other than the material realm, then what purpose does it serve to life a life as if they will receive something in the hereafter, or what really prevents them from benefiting from everything that is possible in this realm and sacrificing the material benefits for hopes of establishing justice?
Interviewer: It appears that we are essentially discussing whether such life-choices are in accordance with Kant’s deontological moral theory, not whether such people exist or not. We are discussing whether such behavior is justifiable and rational?
Dr. Mohsen Javadi: Yes – someone like Kai Nielsen a Canadian atheist philosopher, still alive today, believes that applied ethics can be reconciled with theoretical atheism. Nielsen has a book titled Ethics without God, which is one of the most important works defending the view that an atheistic worldview can be reconciled with ethics and such a life choice is justifiable.
However, on the other hand, there are many academics and scholars who disagree with him. They believe that this reconciliation cannot last in the long-term because the lack of harmony between the theoretical and practical dimension of the self necessitates a one-sided push on the person. They argue that because a violent state is generally not continuous, so when a person is theoretically an atheist, but practically immaterial, this opposition will create a conflict in a person that will eventually put their faculties against one another. What the theoretical and intellectual faculty tells us is in opposition to what our practical faculties tell us to do, which then results in a conflict, and eventually leads to stress and unease. In the long term a person will want to escape such a state and will end up choosing one side over the other, they will sacrifice one aspect for the other, to maintain that harmonious relationship.
If they end up accepting the meta-physical, as they already show in their actions, then this is the first step they take towards a religious belief system, and towards a greater, deeper understanding of existence. In that case, notions of equality, justice, and so on, will find a suitable place in their theoretical worldview. However, it is also possible that such a person ends up personifying their theoretical worldview of atheism and eventually limit their lives to just material pleasures.
Some scholars such as Shahīd Muṭahharī believed that people who are theoretically atheists, but practically they are people of virtue, are unaware that much of their virtues have been taken from religious civilizations that came before them.
For example, many values such as justice and equality that were slogans in Communist Russia were not a product of the Communist Russian system, but rather passed down to them from religious Russian civilizations before them. These things are not erased from civilizations so quickly, and a significant amount of time must pass before a society lets go of these values to make them in accordance with their theoretical atheism.
The fourth and final scenario is the main discussion of our interview. This scenario is the opposite of the previous scenario. In this case a person believes in God, in the Hereafter and so on, but lives their life in such a way as if nothing exists besides this material realm. They are only willing to accept those laws and moral codes that result in material benefits. Things that they consider to be important theoretically, are not important for them practically speaking.
Thus, though belief in God should have an impact on a person’s life, at times we see that practically speaking this is not the case and something as great as the Day of Judgement, which the Qurān refers to as the [78:2] ‘great news’, has no impact on their lives. Even though they believe that the Hereafter is eternal, and the most important reality is that which is beyond the material, they believe in God, yet they live their life without any attention towards these matters. While choosing what is good, they only suffice with criteria that results in material good and do not take immaterial benefits into consideration. Such a person is practically a materialist and is only attracted by those things that are material. A third person – who is unaware of a person’s theoretical beliefs – would assume that this person is also a theoretical materialist. So, in materialism or practical atheism, an individual prefers choices in their life that have a material benefit in them and does not go beyond this material dimension. Things like the Divine, God, developing proximity with God and other similar notions do not play a role in their practical life.
A human who succumbs to practical atheism, instead of looking at other humans from the perspective of them being humans, looks at them through a material lens and their relationship with others becomes limited to whatever material benefit it has for them, subsequently becoming heedless of any notion of developing a spiritual relationship.
True spirituality is when you are sacrificial for other humans because you see them as creations of God and His vicegerents on earth, and as we have mentioned before, worship is not limited to just ritualistic acts. It is because of this that at times it is said, worship of God is nothing except helping God’s creation.
These materialistic ethics can be very dangerous. Such people, despite having a theoretically sound belief, become victim of grave and unknown dangers due to their actions. There is a greater chance that such a person would become a victim of their desires and ego and eventually let go of their faith as well. Faith can only remain continuous if it is accompanied with action. Since it is possible for such individuals to justify their own actions through atheism and skepticism so that they can free themselves of this dual personality, they will be prone to do so. Such a person may end up like Yazīd b. Muā’wiyah who eventually began saying there is no God, and there was no Prophet – instead the Sharī’ah and Revelation were a trickery of the Banī Hāshim.
Whether it is possible for a person to act in direct opposition of their belief or not, is an ancient debate that can be traced back to the times of Plato and Aristotle in their discussion over akrasia (the weakness of will). Today we generally think in an Aristotelean way, where we believe such a thing is possible and that the mind is not the only thing which determines our life’s decisions. We do not generally think like Plato who believed that our theoretical belief is the sole steersman of our will. According to an Aristotelean way of thinking, our will is not only under the influence of our belief, rather there are other factors as well, such as contamination of the soul, acting as a barrier for our belief to be personified through action, which then pulls an individual elsewhere.
Interviewer: Generally speaking, what does the self resort to doing when there is such a duality to create harmony between its theoretical and practical aspect? Does it usually prefer the theoretical dimension and enforce it on the practical dimension, or does action have greater strength and ends up pressuring one to change their theoretical beliefs?
Dr. Mohsen Javadi: Some scholars like Shahīd Muṭahharī believe that change in one’s theory is more likely because it is easier to do so than changing one’s actions. Once a person is dwelling in egoism and drowned in their love for wealth, it is not easy for them to change their actions, because actions eventually become habitual and altering habits is much more difficult than changing one’s theoretical belief system. Theoretical beliefs are much more fluid – when desires do not overpower them – and through research and evidence, humans can easily alter their theological views. Therefore, the danger of practical atheism is that at the end of the day it will affect change in one’s theoretical beliefs as well. The Qurān speaks about these type of people as follows:
Then the fate of those who committed misdeeds was that they denied the signs of Allah and they used to deride them.”
These were people who initially had a sound theoretical belief system, but due to the negative consequences of their sins, they eventually ended up denying the clear signs of God altogether.
We see that lack of faith amongst humans is at times rooted in their actions. For example, they will end up rejecting the Hereafter solely for their freedom and for the sake of fulfilling their desires in this world. Humans are attracted towards freedom and more specifically freedom from responsibility and do not want to be restricted, [Quran 75:5] Rather man desires to go on living viciously, even if the restrictions being imposed upon them are the truth.
Although it should be said that the possibility of their actions changing also exists. For example, the famous story of Fuḍhayl ‘Ayyāḍ – the thief who changed his behaviour after hearing the verse of the Qurān being recited in a house he was about to steal from: [Quran 13:16] Is it not time yet for those who have faith that their hearts should be humbled for Allah’s remembrance and to the truth which has come down [to them].
He already had belief and faith, his theoretical worldview was sound, but his actions were not. In this case, we have someone who was able to alter their actions, instead of their theological and theoretical beliefs. However, these cases are not that common, and most humans – whose correct and incorrect actions are mixed together – will not easily be able to alter their behaviour. For most, it is much easier to just alter their theoretical beliefs, so their actions can be reconciled with their belief system.
Interviewer: What factors do you consider responsible for creating and strengthening this lack of harmony between action and theory?
Dr. Mohsen Javadi: As it has been alluded to earlier, this problem has existed amongst all religions. Wittgenstein believed that people beliefs are not rooted just in their theoretical endeavors, but rather a significant portion of it is rooted in one’s form of life. Unfortunately, religious discourse focuses mostly on theoretical aspects and not much attention is given to human practical life. Even though scholars such as ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī believed that ethical piety is prior to religious piety, because he believed the word religious guidance in the verse [Quran 2:2] This is the Book, there is no doubt in it, a guidance to the Godwary, is only beneficial for those who have ethically been guided through their intellect beforehand. Perhaps the reason why religions have been reflected upon differently by different nations is due to these different ethical and behavioural presumptions.
Even if we consider this matter through a deeper philosophical lens, perhaps we can make the claim that greater focus on the theoretical dimension, as opposed to the lack of focus on the impact of action in one’s religious and ethical life, is rooted in Greek philosophy. In Platonism and Aristotelean philosophy theoretical discussions and research were considered virtuous because they believed God only contemplates and His action is only through His contemplation. In order for man to have a good life, they must resemble God to the best extent possible, and so the best thing to do is to contemplate. Aristotle in his first few books focuses more on action, but in his later books he restricted practice and action to just a preliminary for contemplation. In the end, while discussing the wisdom behind justice, he points out that if there is no justice in society, there will no opportunity for a philosopher to develop and the opportunity to contemplate will decrease and contemplation itself will become challenging. In other words, action – in this example, implementing justice in a society – is just a preliminary for contemplation and to philosophize correctly.
As we move forward, we can see the impact of this thought even in philosophers like Mullā Ṣadrā. Under his Qurānic commentary on the verse of Nūr (24:35), he says the only thing that remains of value for man is his ability to contemplate because that is his crux and other matters such as action, justice, etc. are accidental attributes. The most that can be done with them is to make them part and parcel of one’s knowledge. This approach has always caused an issue between our philosophy and our jurisprudence, as the jurists have generally stood against this thinking process.
In any case, we should not become heedless of action, as it is part and parcel of what constitutes human identity. Those who tread the path of practical atheism, more so than possessing a theoretical and academic justification for their views, are victim to their material wishes and the physical world has only pushed them towards this abyss. Very few of them will use a theoretical mechanism to defend their behaviour.
Another factor that plays a role in strengthening practical atheism today is individualism. Individualism brings a lot of issues along with it. Not only because congregations assure that at least outwardly humans remain ethical, but also because individualism slowly pushes humans to believe they are the centre of this vast reality. It becomes the root of many moral vices and creates an intense love of the self.
Besides this, we have traditions that suggest that within a culture of a society, the nobility of a human must always be taken into consideration. A person who gives away their nobility is free to do anything they can and want. Poverty, humiliation, discrimination – all of these put man’s nobility in danger, and then this danger spreads to the rest of society to the extent that humans are no longer safe and sooner or later all of society suffers. True happiness is hard to find when you are a witness to the misery of your neighbor. This is why I believe that those who are working hard for the prosperity of a society, by trying to eliminate discrimination etc. are doing a religious, spiritual and ethical act and are worthy of praise and honour. Another thing to remember is that it is not necessary that the government carries or enforces these projects, rather creating employment opportunities or the opportunity to live a life free of poverty is an ethical responsibility that exists even on an individual level.
Perhaps the verse [Quran 21:35] Man is a creature of haste, doesn’t only mean humans are hasty in their own actions, but rather it could mean that humans are hasty in seeking good and want the best of this world as quickly as possible and cannot wait for the goodness of the Hereafter. Dr. Naṣr in his book Religion and the Order of Nature presents an interesting view regarding the environmental crisis and says that this crisis actually exists within humans themselves and is rooted in man’s eagerness to fearlessly acquire all the material good. If humans were to cease being hasty and instead sought the good of the Hereafter, perhaps the opportunity to live a life with nobility would develop in a society and that would become the basis for religious propagation and religious faith amongst humans. Their faith would be less prone to the harms that exist in this life.
All in all, getting rid of practical atheism is not a simple task. It requires a lot of training, and every individual requires a different prescription to cure it since everyone’s life is different. There cannot be one prescription for everyone. Universal ethical principles are generally known today by everyone, so just repeating these principles does nothing to change anyone. Rather, as we said, it requires a sort of medical treatment which needs to be reflected upon out of one’s compassion for the sickness of others, and a road-map for a good life needs to be laid out for them. Those curing the ill also need to help the sick with getting these medicines and provide nursing services to them.
 ‘Practical atheism’ more destructive than disbelief, Pope says – https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/practical-atheism-more-destructive-than-disbelief-pope-says
 English translation of this section can be read here: https://www.al-islam.org/al-tawhid/vol12-vol13/causes-responsible-materialist-tendencies-west-4-4-ayatullah-murtadha/
This article was written by Ali Imran for Iqra Online. To read the original article, click here.