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

The background photo shows the King Abdullah I Mosque in Amman, Jordan.
The background photo shows the King Abdullah I Mosque in Amman, Jordan.

Atheists, who are a global minority, 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 considered to be “infidels” in majority Muslim, Christian and Jewish countries. We continue our series by meeting atheists from Algeria, the Philippines, the United States and Jordan.

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

>> READ THE FIRST PART OF THIS ARTICLE ON THE OBSERVERS: What it's like to be an atheist in the world today (Part One)

ALGERIA: "Outside of Kabylie, you can have problems if you admit to being atheist”

Yacine (not his real name) lives in Kabylie, a region in northern Algeria. He’s in his twenties and he’s a student.

My family is Muslim. We aren’t really practising Muslims, but no one else in my family is atheist. When I was about 17, I stumbled across some websites that criticised religion, including one run by the Palestinian writer Waleed Al-Husseini.[Editor’s note: Al-Husseini was imprisoned and tortured for having criticised Islam online. He now lives in France.]

Before, I had heard people criticise conservative Islam, but never Islam itself. On these sites, people discussed inconsistencies and errors that they had found in the Koran. I started trying to verify everything myself and, soon, I was questioning the very idea of religion.

I also realised that Islam didn’t seem to preach equality between men and women, nor did it champion respect for minorities. A year or two later, I became an atheist.

“Sometimes, people defend religion without really understanding it”

I started talking about my decision to become an atheist with my friends and family. Some of them didn’t care, while others thought it was a little weird. Quite a few people asked me, “If God doesn’t exist, what keeps the sky from falling?” Some people wanted to debate the matter with me. Very few people, however, actually have much in-depth knowledge about religion. Yet the people who know the least about religion are always the ones who want to defend it. It’s a bit hypocritical.

At any rate, we’re lucky that people are pretty open in Kabylie. First of all, I know other atheists, and also in some villages here, you can even find restaurants that will serve food during the day during Ramadan. Conversely, you could get arrested if you eat during the day while the Ramadan fast is going on in other parts of the country! In general, I feel like people outside of Kabylie are much less open, even more so because Salafism has been gaining followers since the late 1990s. [Editor’s note: Salafism, or the Salafi Movement, is an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam.]

That said, my parents still don’t know that I’m atheist and, even in Kabylie, I don’t go around shouting about it from the rooftops.

“Muslims can ask us questions on Facebook”

In spite of everything, I feel like atheism is growing in our country. There are more and more members in Facebook groups that bring together Algerian atheists.

Muslims can go to these pages to ask questions about atheism and to understand the reasons behind why we decided to leave religion. In this way, the internet has become a window to the world. It helps atheists like me feel less alone, which is important because I do feel excluded within Algerian society. However, the government wants to shut these windows and keep people from expressing different ideas.

“Hello. I wanted to know what you call “atheist”?” And why did you decide to become atheist? Do you have concrete reasons?”

These questions were posted in a Facebook group for atheists from across North Africa.

UNITED STATES: “There are a lot of activities centred around the church. You have to give that up when you become atheist”

Shaunty, 28, lives in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is where the Mormon Church is headquartered. She is the adminstrator for the “Utah Atheists” Facebook group.

Our Observer is a member of the "Utah Atheists" Facebook group.

My family was always very active within the Mormon Church. When I was a child, I attended religion classes. One day, we were talking about Genesis. I was 14 at the time and I started to ask questions because I wanted to understand what I was being taught. My mother signalled for me to be quiet. It was strange. I couldn’t figure out why my questions were a problem.

Slowly, I realised that a lot of the church’s teachings didn’t have any empirical proof backing them up. I started drifting away from religion. When I was 20, I stopped considering myself a Mormon. By the time I turned 24, I realised that I didn’t believe in God anymore.

My friends and family know that I am atheist, but it took my mom some time to accept it. I think that atheists are looked down upon in the United States, though they have an easier time of it in the big cities. Within the Mormon Church, many believe that atheists just want to sin or that they are fundamentally angry people.

Our Observer wrote this message, which she posted in another Facebook group for atheists.

“Legislators shouldn’t make decisions based on their religious beliefs”

The goal of our Facebook group is to create a community for atheists and to organise group activities. That’s an important component because many activities in Utah are run through the church and, when you leave it, your social circle suffers. We aren’t trying to convince people to give up their religion. We just want to “humanise” atheists, so that people stop looking at us with suspicion.

I think that we need a much clearer separation between church and state in the United States. For example, I don’t think that legislators should make decisions on the basis of their religious beliefs, which happens sometimes. It’s not fair when these laws then apply to all citizens.

The “Reason Rally”, an event bringing together atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, took place on June 4, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mikey Vee Rafterman)

PHILIPPINES: “Catholics are more willing to accept atheists than evangelicals are”

Jay, 39, is Filipino. He lives in Los Baños, which is located south of the capital, Manila. He is an administrator for a Facebook group for atheists in the Philippines.

My parents are Catholic, but they aren’t very devout. [Editor’s note: this is unusual in the Philippines, where the majority of people are very religious.] However, during my childhood, I was heavily influenced by my aunt, who is evangelical, and so I eventually became evangelical as well. Then, when I was about 11, I realised that I was gay. Evangelicals are extremely conservative and so I tried all sorts of different things to stop being attracted to men. Some people from the evangelical church even tried to carry out an exorcism on me. It was sick.

For years, I didn’t ask any questions about my religion. It wasn’t until 2014 when I started wondering if evangelicals might have been wrong about homosexuality. I started looking online, where I found a lot of information. In that way, I slowly came to accept that I’m gay. I also decided to leave the evangelical church. Eventually, I became an atheist.

My parents are very open and accepting, so it wasn’t a problem for them. My aunt, on the other hand, was devastated. My church friends were shocked, too, though they did accept it in the end.

"Isn’t it unnatural to be the son of a virgin?"

Religious groups often claim that being gay is “unnatural”. One social media user posted this photo in a Facebook group for atheists -- essentially using their own argument against them.

I started spending time with people who are more tolerant and enlightened – for example, the people in this Facebook group that I manage. Joining this community helped me a lot. I realised that a lot of young people don’t tell their parents that they are atheist until they are financially independent. However, I feel like most Catholics are able to accept atheists, unlike evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and local fundamentalist groups such as the Iglesia ni Cristo.


JORDAN: “An atheist writer was assassinated in September”

Asma (not her real name), 31, fled her native Jordan and has recently sought asylum in the United States.

I left my country because it’s dangerous for atheists there. In September, an atheist writer named Nahed Hattar was assassinated, after having published a caricature mocking religion on Facebook. When you are atheist, it’s impossible to express yourself freely and to criticise religion. You risk going to prison if you dare to do so.

This cartoon shows The Thinker (the famous bronze sculpture by Rodin), which symbolises the dangers faced by freethinkers in the Middle East, according to the artist who created it, Emad Hajjaj. For more, you can check out his Facebook page: Emad Hajjaj (Abu mahjoob).

“Atheists don’t have the same rights as Muslims and Christians”

Atheists don’t have the same rights as Muslims and Christians in Jordan. For example, we can’t get married because there are no civil ceremonies. If you become an atheist when you are already married, with children, your partner could divorce you and get custody of the children. Atheists also risk being exiled or disinherited.

My whole family is Christian, except for one of my brothers, who is agnostic. I’m the only atheist. I became atheist when I was 24 because, at the time, I was asking myself a lot of questions and religion wasn’t giving me any answers. At first, my parents weren’t very happy about it, but they eventually accepted it. It was no problem for my brothers. A few of my more-opened minded cousins know that I am atheist, as well. I also have some close friends who are atheist.

“The atheists I know want to leave the country”

I think that most Jordanians think that atheists don’t have any morals or values and that they are capable of doing anything because they don’t fear God. This makes many of us feel quite separate from society. The atheists I know either want to leave the country or already have.