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How It Feels To Be An Atheist In A Highly Religious Society

Death threats, ostracism, and imprisonment in a psychiatric facility: Being an atheist can be dangerous.

Kacem El Ghazzali, Morocco

"The day I decided to declare my atheism and discuss it publicly was the end of an era of my life. Some of my friends from the pre-atheism-declaration era won't accept me any more. I now have problems with my family: threats etc. In the post-atheism era I live in new towns, with new friends, a new feeling of freedom. It's a new, challenging life. You feel good that you are being yourself, but at the same time sometimes miss some advantages of the past.

"I am a humanist, and an atheist. I like the idea of being someone who can challenge their situation in order to overcome their problems, without being guided by some supernatural being, or secular leaders. I care about all humans, but I care most about those those who try to challenge and overcome their circumstances. This is exactly what many young atheists are starting to do in the Arab and Islamic world today.

"To be an atheist in a very religious society is more than rejecting the idea of God. It's a powerful political position, because in theocratic countries, being an atheist means no longer accepting the religious laws and cultural norms of your society. You see that those laws go against the basic principles of individual freedom and human rights, and this is dangerous. Any advocacy of freedom of thought will be censored. This applies to anyone who is simply an atheist. But the tax gets higher if you are also an activist. I had to leave Morocco because it was no longer safe to express my ideas from there.

"Now I can talk freely. I can write about my atheism in articles, even a novel in Arabic about my story. I have spoken at the United Nations. But I don't forget that people must pretend to believe. In any society where freedom of choice is not granted, and people do not accept the idea that we are all different and we should not be copies of each other, you will find lots of people who pretend to be what they are not. As a humanist, I believe that freedom of thought is the heart of all freedoms."

Bamidele Adeneye, Nigeria:

"As a child, I did not really feel comfortable with the idea of hell for those who believed in other gods. I had Hindu and Muslim friends who I was very fond of, and could never come to terms with the idea of them burning in hell with worms all over their bodies.

"The turning point came when I began noticing contradictions and pastors refusing to answer my questions. Then I read the Bible myself and decided it was all bunk. My education in archaeology further nailed the coffin, but I had to pretend. For years I pretended that I was a believer. I got married in a church but I never, ever prayed. I was unhappy! The society I live in respects you only if you are a believer. Not believing in god, any god, means devil-worshipping.

"Ever since I have come out openly, I have lost lots of friends, and even some relatives have kept their distance. I have received death threats and even [been] confronted physically for my views – but I am not fazed. What matters to me is speaking out so others like me will know they are not alone.

"With the help of the IHEU [the International Humanist and Ethical Union], I have been able to organise humanism lectures and I am sure we will soon have more people rejecting hate and embracing love. I think in a meaningless universe, love for others and rejecting hateful doctrines that divide us will give some meaning to our lives."

Mubarak Bala, Nigeria:

"I was raised in conservative north Nigeria, from an Islamic background. After learning English, I gradually questioned my faith. I became agnostic, and, much later, an ex-Muslim atheist. Then terrorism hit home, and I decided it was time to speak out. Nigeria is among the least educated places in the world. The societal norm and culture declares that secular education (Boko) is sinful (Haram). But no one could apparently see the link with terrorism. During a decade of activism, I brought the debate to the fore.

"I was abducted by my family, beaten and sedated, and woke up 48 hours later in a mental hospital. I spent weeks in a psych ward, in June 2014, after suffering months of punishment, including violence, from male relatives. My family think my atheism is a demonic possession, a delusion, or a mental illness. My father tried to have me sent to Saudi Arabia as a patient.

"In the end, the hospital management removed the doctor off my case for conniving with my father. Other doctors gave me a clean bill of mental health. I was saved from the Sharia militia by friends and activists, and the IHEU, which fought for my rights.

"Friends and family cut off contact, partly in fear of terrorists, the Sharia, of displeasing their deity, or of society's disapproval. However, I used the loneliness to read wider, think deeper, and seek study or work where it is safer. I made many more new amazing friends. I now know many more who question the status quo. I thought I was the only one."

Uttam Niraula, Nepal

"I was Hindu till I was in 10th grade [age 15]. I thought that the ultimate purpose of life was to go to heaven by making God happy, and the way of making God happy was by offering him bribes. I thought I should be fearful of God; any sin was holy if it made God happy, but any help towards the poor and needy was not accepted. Helping a widow was not allowed because they were touched by misfortune; people with leprosy were boycotted by the whole village, and it was a sin to help them. So-called untouchables were treated like street dogs: We were not allowed to touch them, or share food with them, or let them be represented in public ceremonies, but they were used for hard labor. That was my religion. Maintaining those dogmas was the meaning of my life.

"When I learned about the humanism, I started questioning the 'will of God' in my society. Why would any god want to dominate poor and helpless people? If he does, is he a god, or a devil? This question made me realise the meaning of life. As an atheist, I am clear about my meaning of life: Be happy and make others happy. This is the only life will have, so no need to worry – just enjoy the beauty of everything, and contribute to reducing the evil in the world. Because there is no afterlife, only this life matters, so make it full of love and happiness. Religious people are not living life, but acting at life. I am living without false expectations of any supernatural power."

Tony Marc*, Egypt:

"In Egypt it had been easy for me to talk about religion, even to talk about and criticise Islam, among my friends, family, and my colleagues. That was before the spreading of internet and social media around 2007. At that time, when I first had a Facebook account, I preferred to discuss religion anonymously: The atmosphere just wasn't suitable to do it publicly.

"When I travelled to UAE it was the same; I had a lot of arguments and discussions with my colleagues about human rights, especially women's rights. Eventually that led me to criticise the religion on my real account with my real picture on Facebook. It was because of that that they threw me in jail.

"In Egypt and UAE, in the public arena, my thoughts were unacceptable. People would even refuse to continue discussions by declaring 'this is kufr [blasphemy] and therefore there should be no discussion'.

"To be an atheist puts you under pressure all the time, because I am using different criteria to live my own life. I pretended, with my ex-wife, to be a religious person, but I felt I was a hypocrite, and in the end I couldn't resist that feeling. I knew, and I still know, a lot of people who are suffering like this for being non-religious."

*Tony Marc is a pseudonym

Kelley Freeman, South Carolina, USA:

"Being an atheist in the southeastern US was an experience. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, which, despite some conservative parts, was relatively easy to navigate. It was when I moved to a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina, that I really began to understand why people referred to the South as the Bible Belt. The first question people asked after they learned I was a recent transplant was not, 'Oh, what brought you to Columbia?' or, 'How are you liking it here?' but rather, 'Have y'all found a new church home yet?'

"I don't think I'd ever been invited to church except by friends I have known for years, so having these strangers invite me to their church (regardless of denomination) was some serious culture shock. It made me so uncomfortable to be surrounded by such heavy Christian influence that I told people in high school I was Jewish so I'd be left alone. No one asked too many questions about that. As high school progressed, I 'came out' as apathetic about religions, which lead to more verbal fights than I anticipated. By college, I assumed I would run into a lot more atheists and was initially disappointed. Once I joined the Secular Student Alliance at the University of South Carolina, things were a lot easier. It's amazing how much easier it can be to navigate hostile environments when you have a community of like-minded people."

Kelley Freeman is a communications associate at the Secular Student Alliance

"Abdul", a 30-year-old gay atheist and ex-Muslim, Nigeria:

"Coming from a closely knit and deeply religious community where non-conforming automatically leads to one being a social pariah, being sceptical is something I continue to deal with alone. The farce of leading a double life in which I appear religious while secretly revolting is mentally exhausting. Atheism is still viewed with derision, suspicion, and living openly might lead to endangerment.

"Besides, the fear of losing access to family and friends is scary enough, as the nature of our society makes a person heavily reliant on them. However, the availability of groups and fora online provides an escape, albeit virtual. It's heartwarming to know that even in my deeply religious society, I'm not alone, and atheists are forming communities and becoming outspoken."

Arifur Rahman, Bangladesh

"Bangladesh is moving fast towards becoming an Islamic state. Arabisation pushes ahead on all fronts. Political parties are in favour of it, people are becoming gullible to the point that cautioning about religious problems falls on deaf ears. The land our forefathers fought to carve out of the old Islamic State of Pakistan to cultivate humanity, secularism, democracy, and socioeconomic equilibrium has slid back to a Pakistan-like nation. Only this time, atheists, the fighters, are socially outcast. We are now targets, both physically – people are being killed – and socially.

"Since 2013, the word 'atheist' has come in for perpetual demonisation, from Islamists (obviously) but also, surprisingly, from the rest of the so-called progressives, who may or may not be atheist themselves. They cave when Islamists or their allies throw any kind of challenge at them.

"In 2015, killings still continue. After each death, a fresh dose of vile rhetoric spills across the media. Be it newspaper op-ed, be it social media celebrities or TV talk shows. Across the board, everyone agrees on one thing: They are not atheists, and no one should call them so. This is the worst kind of accusation anyone can bring forward. That is the reality in Bangladesh.

"Islamists no longer need to kill anyone, no need to blast any bombs. They have achieved what they wanted to – they have demonised atheists."

Arifur's comments are adapted from a longer version on his blog

Nada Peratović, Croatia:

"I am an atheist, humanist, and feminist, but above all I am an activist. I live my life on my own, despite the collectivism and conformism of others.

"Croatian society has ignored humanistic values at the expense of narrow nationalism, (hetero)sexism, and clerical dogmatism. State authorities fawn over the clerics of the strongest domestic religious organisation (especially regarding the huge influence on public education) and conduct ideological wars with their political opponents, instead of showing the political will for protecting secular values and real change in society.

"Children who are educated and brought up like this cannot grow into responsible citizens. Children whose parents are non-religious, or who otherwise don't fit in the national-religious-heteronormative pattern, are discriminated against; they are invisible and irrelevant for the political elite.

"My activism is aimed at raising awareness of the values of humanistic thought, democratic and secular principles, human rights, feminist solidarity, civil responsibility, and courage, and the importance of civil movements and activism, through humanist workshops for children and young adults, culture clubs for adults, and especially the book Humanism for Children. Activism means being bold, active, visible, loud, on behalf of those who are deprived of their human rights. It is a more difficult life, but it is also a life worth living."

Nada Peratović is the founder of the Centre for Civil Courage, AAI representative in the UN Human Rights Council and author of Humanism for Children

Cara Zelaya, Georgia, USA

"Being an atheist woman in the south is a complicated reality to navigate. I have a deep love for many Southern traditions, such as hospitality, tradition, and community building. But many Southerners view these traits as being exclusively based in faith, which alienates people like me.

"That being said, being a Southerner and being an atheist doesn't create any cognitive dissonance for me. The South must comply with federal laws regarding separation of church and state; I see it as a place that is legally and inherently secular. Southern atheist groups are growing in both strength and numbers, allowing me to find a Southern community that I can call my own.

"At the end of the day, I do my best to bolster the Southern values that align with my worldview, while trying to be a voice for change within the regional social justice problems of our time. "

Cara Zelaya is the regional campus organiser for the Student Secular Alliance

Ajanta Deb Roy, Bangladesh:

"I was born into a Hindu family in a very Muslim city. It was only when I started learning about how many wars have started over religion, around age 12, that I began to question the world around me and the things I was taught. Eventually, at the age of 16, I decided that I was going to start identifying myself as an agnostic. I rejected major Hindu religious beliefs; I lost faith in idol worship and the Hindu taboo of not eating beef. I started supporting logical and scientific thinking, and secular, rational morality based on human values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. I started believing [that] only in the rejection of organised religions can humankind be truly free.

"But I could not gather the courage to become public about my feelings about religion. I could not even tell my parents. It is very difficult growing up in an environment where you can not declare who you really are. At times I felt it was suffocating me.

"In 2013, after the murder of atheist blogger Rajib Haidar Shovon [one of several such murders in Bangladesh in recent years], I, along with other activists, bloggers, and campaigners, was targeted by the Islamists. They declared us atheists and wanted us dead. Old friends unfriended and blocked me on Facebook, very close relatives stopped contacting me, and some even threatened me to make me stop.

"Bangladeshi Muslims are very conservative and aggressive when it comes to religion, and questioning Islam is risky. Though Bangladesh is officially secular, 'atheist' is a swearword. Outspoken liberal secular people were always a target of the Islamists. The moment someone declares himself or herself a non-believer people start judging them less of a person. And if the person is from a non-Muslim background, it becomes even more dangerous . Three of the four secular atheist bloggers killed in Bangladesh are of Hindu background.

"I fear for my life as an activist against Islamism, and they have already declared me as an enemy of Islam. But I can easily tell everybody that I am a campaigner against the Islamists in Bangladesh, I can not express my agnosticism that easily in public. This is the fear we face in Bangladesh – not only the fear for our lives, but also the fear of social and political death."

With thanks to the people at the International Humanist and Ethical Union.


This piece originally stated that Mubarak Bala had been "arrested"; in fact he had been abducted by members of his family and put in a psychiatric institution. It also said that the "education system" declares secular education to be sinful; Mr Bala says that in fact it is the social norms and cultures in the north of Nigeria which so declare it.