Atheism and Islam

Don’t miss a story in last week’s New Republic on atheism in the Arab world. Ahmed Benchemsi, the editor in chief at, presents evidence that there are a lot more atheists in Muslim countries than we generally think – certainly a lot more than the 2,293 (out of some 300 million) that a religiously-linked poll claimed to find in Arab countries last year.

Benchemsi cites a WIN/Gallup International poll from 2012 that gives very different numbers. Saudi Arabia, where disbelief in Islam is illegal, showed 5% as “convinced atheists” (the same as for the United States), plus another 19% who said they were “not a religious person.” (For Saudi Arabia, see also the report by Caryle Murphy last year in Salon.)

For the Arab world as a whole, the number who described themselves as “religious” was 77%. High, certainly, but far from the unanimity that western readers typically assume, and in fact lower than the comparable proportions in Africa (89%), Latin America (84%) and South Asia (83%).

Benchemsi has much to say about the plight of nonbelievers in places like Saudi Arabia, but in the picture he paints the causes of religious disbelief seem much the same as in the west. Education and economic growth lead to questioning of the old myths; repression (especially of women) provides a motive for challenging the ideological system that supports it. However different the circumstances, the rise of scepticism among Muslims is just part of a single world-wide story.

Why, then, do we find it so much harder to credit the idea of Arab atheists? As Benchemsi says, “In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. … Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given …”.

For many commentators, especially (but not exclusively) those on the American right, that’s not terribly surprising, since they are friends to religion in general. Its decline in the west may be too obvious to ignore (although in pundit-land it is always making a comeback), but elsewhere they feel they can disregard signs of disbelief.

Like the “dictator envy” that some of them express when it comes to Vladimir Putin, conservatives suffer from a sort of “fundamentalism envy”. Although they are opposed to Islam and Muslims, they are attracted to the idea of deep, unquestioned religious faith, and they don’t like the idea of anyone giving it up.

There’s something else going on, though, about identification. Even discounting their fear of repercussions, I suspect that most of the non-religious 24% of Saudi Arabians would still describe themselves as Muslims: in other words, the term functions as something other than an indicator of actual religious belief. Benchemsi finds this mysterious, saying that “If these people don’t take Islam seriously, why then call them Muslims, ‘nominal’ or not?”

But consider Lebanon. The Lebanese electoral system is much loved by psephologists because of its bizarre complexity, with representation allocated to religious groups and sub-groups as well as along geographical lines. There are seats reserved for the likes of Greek Catholics and Armenian Orthodox Christians, but none for atheists – not because there are not enough of them to worry about, but because the very idea just doesn’t make sense in that context. It’s what philosophers call a “category mistake”.

Religious terms, in this and many other cases, are used not to denote belief but to denote membership of a particular community. That happens to some extent in western countries too; we’re all familiar with people who identify, for example, as “Roman Catholic” while neither going to church nor believing in any of the key doctrines of that religion.

In the west, however, “Christian” doesn’t usually work that way, because Christianity has been the universal default option for so long. But in the Middle East, historically a patchwork of different faiths, there are Christian communities, Jewish communities, Muslim communities – none of them dependent on actual belief, but on cultural identification.

That’s part of what makes political and religious authorities in those countries so insecure about permitting dissent. But it also means we need to remember that just counting the number of “Muslims”, while it might be an illuminating exercise in ethno-cultural terms, is not necessarily telling us what we want to know about belief in Islam.

For all of the difficulties in measurement of the latter, there’s no particular reason to doubt that the worldwide decline of religious belief is making itself felt in the Arab world as well. As Daniel Dennett put it on Sunday in the Wall Street Journal:

If we are lucky—if human health and security continue to rise and spread around the globe—churches might evolve into humanist communities and social clubs, dedicated to good works, with distinctive ceremonies and disappearing doctrine, except for a scattering of reclusive sects marked by something like institutional paranoia.

One thought on “Atheism and Islam

  1. Your post makes me reflect fondly on the principle of government neutrality towards religion. A tip of my hat goes to Thomas Jefferson.


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