Muslim Atheist

I try not to write about things I'm unacquainted with, so let me begin by confessing that on this one I don't know what I'm talking about. But, as an atheist, I found myself speculating on what I would do if I were born in a devoutly Muslim country, brought up in that religion, and one day came to the realization that I didn't believe in God.

When someone loses his/her faith, it's both difficult and liberating. On the one hand you're faced with a very different universe. In this one, your most basic support system is gone and you yourself must create the new rules with little help from others. Moreover, the path you've just stepped onto is neither popular nor well-traveled by those around you. Most people you know will very much disapprove of what you've decided, and think the worst of you for having made this terrible choice. On the other hand, all those years suspecting that religion was a sham and that huge numbers of people were settling for a dream instead of reality have finally come to fruition. Now a brave world—the real one—invites you to explore what's actually going on. And it's an exciting existence: one in which there are not necessarily definite answers ("God will reward you if you believe in Him and lead a good life, so even if things are awful when you're alive you'll be happy for all eternity"), but where the only true limits are what we can make for ourselves by our own wide-awake efforts, and the time in which we have to do it starts with the breath we're taking in and ends with the last one we'll let out.

When I speculate what this experience would be like in a Muslim country, I want to emphasize that I've chosen Islam as only an example of the same difficulty that would face anyone who lost belief in their religion if that that religion (be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever) was extreme, in complete control of the local environment, apparently unquestioned by everyone, and containing severe penalties for theist doubt or outright apostasy.

For Muslims immersed in a Muslim country that would often be the case. Religion there isn't chosen, it's enforced. Freedom of religion, as a concept, is condemned, not praised or tolerated. While the Qur'an states Allah wills that apostates be severely punished, it doesn't specify the punishment. Most, though certainly not all, of the religion's scholars decree that death is the appropriate choice. Indeed, it's a statutory crime in some Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia, for example, where an apostate is imprisoned for three days to repent before being executed. But most apostates in the Muslim world who suffer death aren't killed by the state, but by their outraged family and neighbors or by religious authorities self-acting as Thought Police. Why this intense reaction? This extreme punishment for a mental attitude? Because, of course, not believing in the settled rules of a religion strikes at the very heart of society. This evil person is saying that everything we believe in is wrong!

Those who leave Islam for another religion (say, Christianity) can and have been condemned to death. But to leave it for no religion might strike the neighbors as greater madness. It's one thing to think that your friends are wasting much of their lives due to an ancient misunderstanding of the world, and another to believe that 90% of the population of the entire planet has this same unfortunate problem.

So what would I do if I abandoned a belief in an invisible God but was surrounded by people and institutions that made it impossible to talk about this?

I don't know for sure, but it would be a constant burden on me, and at times a crushing one. Once you start looking at religion objectively it becomes more and more offensive that it's forced on people, its good parts (charity) with the bad (eternal damnation) alike. It's spoon-fed to children, who, all over the world, tend to get their religion the same way they get the color of their hair: their parents. Moreover, being a Muslim takes up much time everyday: rituals are everywhere and five times each 24 hours one must kneel and make prayer, frequently in public (the salat, one of the Five Pillars of Wisdom required of all believers). One's conversation is expected to be sprinkled to with constant praise of Allah, and doing this while being a closet atheist would be hypocrisy in the extreme, burning on the lips, eating at the heart.

Summing it up: I'd be living a lie everyday for the rest of my life.

But, damn it, I think I'd have to do it. Unless I could escape to a situation where Islam couldn't follow, as long as I was to live in a world controlled by Islam I'd have to pretend to be a faithful follower. Doing otherwise would possibly be dangerous, but even at the least it would mean that I'd be devalued in every dealing I had with my fellows.

It might be possible—cautiously, carefully—to find other nonbelievers and relax in their company. One might build up a family of secret-keepers. But that would have its own dangers too: one disagreement and possibilities of blackmail and public exposure arise.

If anyone reading this is actually dealing with being an atheist in a tight religious society, I'd appreciate hearing from you as to how you do handle the dilemma. My email address is I would, I promise, keep your identity and location secret.

There are Muslim atheists who are working in their countries to change all this. In "Free Inquiry" magazine (published by the Counsel for Secular Humanism) I read about their efforts with wonder. They have to be among the most courageous people on earth, working to accomplish what appears to be a hopeless task. I don't think I could do what they do.

I'm not brave enough.
Related Posts:
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010
“Superstitions,”March 21, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Is Evolution True?" July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"Is Evolution True," July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


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