Said a witty imam, the Quran is a “God-given user manual for humans.” Really? Like a set of easy-to-follow instructions covering every aspect of human life? Know what: let's take on the argument.
There's a celebrity cleric in my town who is famous for using amusing, witty similes in order to explain or justify religious doctrines. He once said: "Have you noticed how every appliance manufacturer provides a user manual for their product? Well, who's the biggest manufacturer of all? God, obviously. And what's the most complex product God has built? Man, obviously. Now, wouldn't this manufacturer provide a user manual for this man? Of course, He would. In fact, He has given such a user manual, and that user manual is Quran."
When I heard this for the first time years ago, I was pretty impressed. But I have changed a lot since then, and have gradually come to see many holes in its logic. For starters, our intelligence makes us a little less helpless than a blender. This intelligence is our species' hallmark. Our Manufacturer presumably must have been aware of the ramifications of that quality, independent judgment being one of them. To expect humans to act according to a set of limited instructions is to expect them not to be humans, since that means leaving their most defining quality drastically underutilized.
But let's assume, for argument's sake, that we do accept Quran as the ultimate "user manual" for humans. Is Quran really a set of easy-to-follow instructions? Does it cover every aspect of human life? Can a layman understand everything he needs to understand about his life from perusing the holy book? No, no, and no. Only experts are allowed to interpret that book and derive laws. Experts like our distinguished cleric. And there's the rub. In these experts' algorithm, reason—layman's primary means of discovering truth—is not a priority. These experts would much rather spend their time verifying the authenticity of a quotation than focus on its reasonableness. In other words, we are expected to base our behavior primarily upon what a long line of hagiographists have passed down to each other rather than trust our own God-given reason. Another case of severe under-utilization, if you ask me.
But what is it about reason that makes it so terrifyingly unreliable to these people? I would argue its power to cast doubt on every doctrine, its open-endedness. But religious clerics are not alone in fearing this power. Every person who's inherited his beliefs from his ancestors and accepted them without seriously thinking them over feels the same terror. And I was one of them.
I remember that when I first started asking questions, I had an uneasy feeling that my unorthodox questions would finally lead me to the bottom of hell. I used to recite Quran daily. I was afraid that one day I'd stop doing it. The same thing happened with my daily prayers. "What if I stopped saying my daily prayers someday?" I asked myself, and immediately used to feel the terror of falling into an abyss. Then came other questions: What if I stopped fasting someday? What if I stop being disgusted with homosexuality someday? What if I become gay someday? What if I become a pedophile someday? What if I become a murderer someday? Then I imagined myself standing on the gallows, about to be hanged in public, just like the child molester whose execution I'd witnessed one morning while riding to school with my father.
Eventually all my fears came true one by one. Well, all except the last three questions. But despite what I was told, my worst fear never came true: I never lost my sense of right or wrong. My morality's reason-induced free-fall stopped somewhere near the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." I don't want to be lied to, so I try not to lie to others. I don't like to be treated unfairly, so I try not to treat anyone unfairly. Yes, that's very basic and simple. Those who have inherited an intricate system of morality (the appropriate length of skirts or beards, the number of camels to be paid in compensation for a sin, etc.) would probably scoff at my version of morality. But at least I can talk to my conscience in my own voice.
As for the bigger questions, I confess I don't have all the answers. My brain cannot even begin to comprehend what was it like before the Big Bang; I cannot imagine how small my planet is in an ever expanding universe; I can't understand how short my life on this small planet is compared to its own age; and I have really no idea what's it like to be here no more (my expectation is that I'd be feeling the same way I did 100 years ago). I don't have an overarching narrative that explains everything. I cannot claim to be privy to the Grand Secret. I'm not that presumptuous.
All I know is that I have a small apparatus locked in the upper part of my body that gives me consciousness, and likes to seek patterns and solve problems. But it also has enabled me to learn about its limits. I know it cannot "solve" everything, because sometimes simply there's nothing to solve in the first place. This knowledge has inspired me to play a little game with my brain when I'm bored:
I draw random lines on a piece of paper. I then try to spot just a hint of order and symmetry somewhere in my random lines (the outline of a head, a shoe, anything). I then expand that small symmetry to the rest of my random shape, but not too much: I don't want to hide the randomness lying beneath everything. I stop drawing when I find a satisfactory balance between order and disorder.
When people see my brainteasers (see sample on the left), the first thing they ask me is "What's this supposed to be?"
I'd invariably reply: "Nothing."
—What do you mean "Nothing"? It has to be something!
—Yes, indeed. It is something.
—But what is it?
I would love to play this on game our funny cleric. But something tells me he'd not appreciate it at all. I'm told religious clerics like only squares, because they're the only shapes mentioned in their "user manual."