The image above is a 19th-Century painting by Eugène Delacroix, depicting the story of Jacob, wrestling with a being often described as an angel, as described in the Book of Genesis. An interesting part of the story is that there were no witnesses to this struggle in the darkness (“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak,” Gen. 32:24, NIV), which tells me that the conflict could have occurred entirely inside Jacob’s mind. It does not matter if there was, or was not, an actual person, named Jacob, who had such an experience. No supernatural beliefs are necessary to find this story interesting, and there is no good reason to avoid thinking about it.
Thought is, of course, a mental activity which can bring clarity to confusing things in life, just as a sunrise can enable one to see things which have previously been hidden by night. There are times when thinking requires solitude, and the process of figuring out difficult problems usually doesn’t succeed without some sort of internal struggle. If you have ever wrestled with a single, difficult mathematical problem for several days running, as I have, then you understand this already — but the need for clear, rational thinking is certainly not limited to the field of mathematics. Rational thought is important in all parts of life.
Whether we like it or not, life contains a series of both external and internal struggles. Many people dislike conflict, and go to great lengths to avoid it. I am not one of those people, but this is not by choice. It is, rather, a result of the fact that I was born into an intense struggle-in-progress: the efforts of my now-deceased father, a religious fanatic, to control the lives of everyone around him, and use them for his own selfish purposes — and the efforts of some of these other people, myself included, to escape his efforts to control every facet of our lives. From an early age, out of necessity, I had to develop complex techniques of mental and verbal combat, both defensive and offensive, simply to survive childhood with some semblance of sanity intact — although the resulting PTSD, from growing up in the war zone I called “home,” is something with which I will always have to cope. My earliest memory, after all, is surviving shaken baby syndrome at age 2½, and that sort of experience simply cannot be escaped without consequences.
My mental-combat techniques still exist, available for use at any time of my choosing, and can have devastating impact on others — I seldom lose an argument — but using these verbal and mental weapons at full power is, I now realize, quite dangerous, more so to myself than to anyone else. Now, decades later, I still have to be careful not to be overly eager to jump headlong, as if by instinct, into any conflict which presents itself, especially if I see those I care about being bullied, or otherwise abused. I have neither the time, nor the mental energy, to fight every single injustice I see, but it took many years for me to understand the wisdom of the well-known saying that it is important to choose one’s battles carefully.
The word “jihad,” which I deliberately used in the title of this post, is complex, and has multiple definitions. It is also an emotionally-charged word, and out-of-control emotions are, perhaps, the greatest enemy of rational thought. So, first, please understand this: when I use this word, I am not referring to any sort of “holy war,” which is the first thing that comes to mind, for many people, when they hear what I sometimes call the “j-word.” I am also not making any sort of comment for, nor against, Islam, but am simply borrowing a word from another language, Arabic, because it applies so well to much of my own life. Another definition you will find here is “a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline” — in other words, an internal struggle to do the right thing. While I am not religious in any conventional sense, I definitely understand the important idea of an internal, mental — or “spiritual,” if you prefer — struggle. My personal internal struggle involves a never-ending effort to maintain self-control, especially over destructive emotions, such as hatred, and fury. Fury isn’t simply anger, after all — it goes far beyond that. It is an absolutely horrific state of mind where one is so overcome by anger that the rational self becomes utterly consumed by white-hot, blinding rage.
For years, without realizing it, I was a theophobe — hardly surprising, considering the religious elements of the more unpleasant parts of my childhood. Theophobia is not a familiar word to most people, but it can exist in both religious and non-religious people, and can be defined as an irrational fear and hatred of God, religion, religious people, and religious institutions, such as churches and mosques. There have been entire years — especially since the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal blew wide-open in the media, worldwide — when I could not bring myself to go near a church of any denomination, let alone enter one, for fear that being near such a place would trigger a panic attack, or, even worse, a PTSD “freakout” episode. It isn’t hard to spot theophobes, of course; they are easily identified, especially among the much larger, rapidly-growing group of people who call themselves atheists. You probably know at least a few atheists yourself, and might have noticed that some of them seem to be at peace with life, and can easily interact peacefully with religious people — while others are a perfect fit for the “angry atheist” stereotype, attacking religion as if it were the source of all evil in the world. It isn’t, but that didn’t stop me from thinking that it was, for many years. Recovering from theophobia is not easy, and is definitely a struggle, but is also very much worth the effort.
Unusually, several of the people I am now grateful to, specifically for helping me recover from theophobia, are practicing Muslims. This doesn’t fit the stereotype of Islam portrayed in the Western media, of course. If you get all of your information about Islam from stories in the news, you might think all Muslims hijack airplanes, commit suicide bombings, oppress women, and decapitate “infidels” every time they get they chance. Fortunately, I started using another approach, while still in college: conversation. Simply by talking to Muslims I am now proud to call my friends, I have learned several things, among them that most Muslims are kind and decent people, and also that most Muslims intensely dislike the extremists within Islam — about as much as the average Christian dislikes, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. Adding practicing Christians to the list of people I can successfully engage in productive conversation took a lot longer, but the reason for this has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with my own personal history. My father was, after all (among many other things), an ordained Christian minister. Later, he moved through several other religions, attempting to drag my family along with him, and these religions included his own warped version of amalgamated Native American religious traditions, the Soka Gakkai sect of Buddhism, and several others. A notable absence on this list — one of the few religions with which my father never developed an obsession — is Islam. This fact made Islam, and those who practice it, a logical place for me to start the process of making peace with certain inescapable facts: (1) the world contains billions of religious people, most of whom are not dangerous fanatics, and (2) religion is not going away any time soon, no matter how much the furious theophobes of the world rage against it.
This personal recovery-process is not over; I still have much internal, mental work left to do, especially when it comes to establishing peace with Christianity, the world’s largest religion. The important thing, at this point, is that I am doing it. I’m quite happy to have left the “angry atheist” phase of my life in the past, where it belongs, and have no intention of returning there.