What it's like to be an atheist in the world today (Part One)


Atheists are a global minority. They are often looked down upon, discriminated against or even persecuted, especially in countries where religion carries considerable weight. The Observers Team put together a series of portraits of people who are non-believers, sometimes even perceived as heretical, in majority Muslim, Christian and Jewish countries. We start by meeting atheists from three very different places: Tunisia, Gabon and Israel.

Atheists do not believe in the existence of God or gods. This makes them different from agnostics, who do not think it is possible to know if divine beings exist.

“Convinced” atheists only make up 11% of the world population, according to a 2015 study carried out by the WIN/Gallup International poll. They are an especially tiny minority in Africa and the Middle East. Only in China do they represent a majority of the population (61%).

Though the number of atheists grew globally in the 20th century, that hasn’t been the case in recent years. The number of atheists in the world may even be decreasing. The WIN/Gallup International poll from 2012 found that 13% of the global population was atheist. By 2015, the number of atheists had dropped by two percentage points.

While some atheists are able to live quite happily according to their beliefs, others face real challenges. Across the world, many atheists are looked down upon within their society, rejected by friends and family, discriminated against (especially in terms of access to employment or other opportunities), denied certain rights and even persecuted. The “wrongs” they are accused of include questioning dominant religious beliefs, criticizing religion or even openly mocking it.

Those who commit apostasy — the act of publicly renouncing your religious beliefs — could face the death penalty in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Mauritania, all countries where Islam is the dominant religion.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Bangladesh struck by wave of atheist blogger murders

The Observers Team spoke with atheists living in different countries where religion has a strong influence. Even if the atheists we spoke to are not all up against the same challenges, all of them were vocal about wanting a clear separation between religion and state, both in law and in practice. Many of them also highlighted the essential role that the internet plays in their lives. Social media allows atheists to connect, to support each other, to speak freely amongst themselves and to discuss articles, videos and images that might be taboo or even illegal to speak about in their own countries.

Many atheists share cartoons and drawings critical of religion on Facebook.

TUNISIA: “My father disowned me for three years because of my atheism”

Myrian, age 26, lives in Tunis. She is the administrator for a Facebook group for atheists.

I grew up in a practising Muslim family. However, when I was 12, I started to become skeptical of religion because I realised that women weren’t considered men’s equals in the Koran. Slowly, I started to see religion as a symbol for submission, irrationality and for keeping people in the dark. I left Islam when I was 19.

My decision to leave caused me a lot of problems, especially in my family. My father disowned me because of my choice. Some of my co-workers refused to work with me, while others accused me of blasphemy. My two best friends first tried to reconvert me. When that failed, they decided to cut off contact with me. They decided that I was a non-believer, impure and without ethics.

A mosque in Ariana, a suburb of Tunis. Myriam took this photo.

“Being atheist is inconceivable in Tunisia”

After three years, my father finally “accepted” my choice, but he forbade me from criticising religion, eating with my family during Ramadan and from talking to the neighbours about religion or atheism. For him, it’s shameful to have an atheist daughter. I’m the only atheist person in my family and he doesn’t want people outside my family to know.

Overall, I ­am comfortable with my atheism, but I don’t talk about it very much because the rise of Islamism within the ranks of government in Tunisia kind of frightens me. [Editor’s note: Ennahdha, the conservative Islamist party, is the largest political force in the national assembly.] What's more, people look down upon atheism in our society — it is seen as inconceivable, and a taboo. The consequence is that many atheists don’t admit publicly to their beliefs. Still, I think that there are more of us since the revolution [the revolution took place in 2010-2011]. I’ve met most of the atheists I know in the leftwing party that I joined.

GABON: “Christianity was imported by colonists”

N’toutoume Ndong, 30, is from Gabon. He lives in Gamba, a city in the west of the country. He is one of the administrators of a Facebook group for atheists.

I grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who strictly followed biblical teachings. When I was a teenager, I started asking questions because I noticed that there were inconsistencies in the Bible. That led me to atheism.

That shocks a lot of people. Some try to “reason” with me, except that, often, I know the Bible better than they do. But I am at ease with my decision to be atheist because I feel more intelligent and free because no one controls my choices.

N’toutoume Ndong took this photo at his uncle’s house. “Each person can come up with his or her own interpretation”.

The Gabonese people were brainwashed by colonisers: Christianity was brought over by colonizers, who destroyed our culture [Editor’s note: before colonisation, most people in Gabon were animists]. If the colonists weren’t Christian, would we be Christian today? I often quote John Henrik Clarke [Editor’s note: Clark was an American pan-Africanist writer and professor who died in 1998]: “Nearly all religions were brought to people and imposed on people by conquerors, and used as the framework to control their minds.”

"Priests and pastors won big time with colonisation. If the first boats hadn’t landed on the shores of Africa, these people would be simple workers like everyone else."

This social media user seems to agree with our Observer’s view on Christianity, as shown by his post in a Facebook group for atheists.

Atheists remain in the minority in Gabon. I don’t know any other atheists in my immediate circle of friends and family, for example. I don’t get the idea that atheism is developing, either. Even if lots of people have questions about religion, most of them don’t dare to give voice to those questions.

ISRAEL: “Marriages are only carried out by religious authorities”

Benjamin, 30, lives in Tel Aviv. He also runs a Facebook page for atheists.

When I was growing up, my family wasn’t religious, even if we did practise a few cultural traditions from Judaism. I never really believed in God, because nothing really proves that he exists. As time went on, I became an atheist.

I know a lot of other people who don’t follow religious rules, even if I don’t know if they are true atheists. The only people I know are convinced atheists for sure are the people I have met on Facebook. In fact, within Judaism, we rarely talk about beliefs as such. We talk more about practices and what you should and shouldn’t do.

Being atheist hasn’t caused me any problems personally. However, there are several laws that we need to rethink in our country. For example, more and more organisations — financed by the Minister of Education — come into schools to teach Judaism with a very traditional point of view. It's religious authorities who control marriages and divorces, which can be problematic. [Editor's note: It is not possible in Israel for two people of different faiths to have a civil marriage]. A final example: in Israel, public transport is drastically reduced on the weekend to respect the Shabbat [Saturday, the Jewish holy day].

>> GO TO THE NEXT PART OF THIS SERIES: What it's like to be an atheist in the world today (Part Two)