This Eid, spare a thought for the secret Ex-Muslims in our midst
By Alom Shaha
More than one of my friends is glad that Ramadan is over. Not just because the long summer days have made it a particularly hard month (you’re supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset) but so that they can be relieved of the heightened pressure to conform to the expectations of what it means to be a “Good Muslim”.
Islam, like all other religions, has a set of rules and regulations that are supposed to be followed. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is considered to be one of the “five pillars”, the five most important of the practices which Muslims are supposed to adhere to. Fasting may have spiritual benefits, but it also serves the important purpose of being a visible demonstration of one’s faith.
In the secular west, people generally have the freedom to pick and choose how to follow the religion of their birth. I’d like to write the religion of their choosing, but the fact is that most people who belong to a religion simply do so because, as research has shown, that’s what their parents told them to do.
The overwhelming majority of children are taught that God exists from the minute they can learn anything. They are subjected to elaborate rituals, such as christenings and religious festivals, which reinforce the significance of this thing called God and the importance of belief. In short, they are surrounded by people who act as if God exists, so there is no reason at first to suspect that God does not exist.
It’s only once children start thinking for themselves that belief in God first wavers, but even then, the indoctrination or conditioning they have experienced when they were young make it difficult for most to develop their own thinking on this issue. Adults present religious stories to children as being ‘true’ and categorically different from the other stories. As Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith, ‘each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must’.
A minority of people grow up to question the beliefs handed down to them and eventually reject those beliefs in favour of either a different religion, agnosticism or atheism. Academics describe the process of leaving a religion using various terms – apostasy, exit, defection, disaffiliation and deconversion. In their paper The variety of deconversion experiences: contours of a concept in respect to empirical research, Prof. Heinz Streib and Dr Barbara Keller suggest that “deconversion” consists of 5 characteristics:
- loss of specific religious experiences (experiential dimension): the loss of finding meaning in life; the loss of experience of God; loss of trust and of fear; attraction to a new kind of religious experience
- intellectual doubt, denial or disagreement with specific beliefs (ideological dimension): heresy
- moral criticism (ritualistic dimension): rejection of specific prescriptions; application of a new level of moral judgement
- emotional suffering (consequential dimension): loss of embeddedness; loss of social support; loss of sense of stability and safety
- disaffiliation from the community: retreat from participation in meetings or from observance of religious practices; finally, the termination of membership which eventually follows
It is this last step that is perhaps the hardest for most people who no longer believe in the religion of their childhood; not everyone who is a non-believer is prepared to openly declare their true feelings about religion if it means hurting the people they love or, perhaps less nobly, getting trouble from the communities in which they live.
Suzanne Brink and Nicholas Gibson, of the University of Cambridge, recently carried out research which examined the experiences of people who, like myself, describe themselves as “Ex-Muslim”. They found that
‘There are cases in which people have ceased to believe in their religion yet continue to pretend to believe in that religion. The reasons behind this decision are generally social in nature. It may be that they are afraid of getting hurt when stating their disbelief openly, or it may be that they do not see enough merit in disclosing their newly found disbelief to justify hurting the people whom they love. They prefer remaining a secret disaffiliate… of those making any mention of disaffiliation, around one-third of all narratives included statements to the effect that the authors considered it a necessity to keep their deconversion a secret’.
Religious customs and traditions can be central to the identity of entire communities of people, and individuals who don’t believe in God may still want to carry on those traditions and customs because they feel some kind of moral duty to maintain those traditions. I have heard it said that Jews who reject their religion are “finishing what Hitler started” – emotional blackmail of the worst kind, but perhaps not so different to the pressures applied to children of all religions who are brought up with the notion that it is immoral to not follow the one true religion of their parents.
It is perhaps unsurprising that people from Muslim backgrounds, where Islam is at the heart of their cultural identity, often fail to take the final step towards deconversion and choose instead to live lives of quiet non-belief. I know many secret Ex-Muslims and I totally understand why they choose to keep up the pretence of belief.
This Eid, my thoughts will be with them.
Alom Shaha is author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook
Image: Sandip Debnath, Creative Commons, 2007