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Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

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Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt’s landscape. So it’s time society granted us our right to believe… differently.

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab

Believe it or not, I am a member of Egypt’s least-recognised minority. No, I’m not a Copt or a convert or a Bahá’í even. I am an agnostic atheist, or an atheistic agnostic. Basically, I don’t know whether or not God exists, but religion, in my humble view, is clearly manmade and not heaven-sent.

If there is a god, he set off the Big Bang and then took cover to view the handiwork of the magnificent laws he set in motion to govern the universe. He is not an interventionist micro-manager who, for some unfathomable reason, decided to place us, insignificant flecks on the back of an insignificant speck that we are, at the centre of his entire scheme.

This is the first time I’ve made such a declaration of faith, or faithlessness, in an Egyptian newspaper, and it is bound to outrage some readers and cause offence to others. That is not my intention. Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs, I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.

When it comes to finding religion, we hear of epiphanies, moments when someone suddenly wakes up and sees the light. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never experienced a religious awakening. When it comes to losing your religion, as REM might put it, it’s more like a slow bleed or a debilitating terminal condition in which there can be periods of recovery but the end is not far off; it involves soul-searching and soul-destruction.

I felt perhaps my strongest (and youngest) faith in a non-Muslim country and lost it in a Muslim country, though I did not fully abandon it until I left Egypt again. It began with childhood doubts over why all my English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died, which matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran.

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome? Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.

Many believers, I imagine, will read the above with a mix of horror and even concern. They will perhaps grieve for my lost soul and wonder what emptiness and hollowness lie inside. But, on the contrary, I don’t feel that my loss of faith has left me with a God-sized hole in my heart. Nor am I like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls.

There is so much around us to instil a sense of wonder and mystique, from the science and technology that can perform endless modern-day “miracles” to the physics theories that are metaphysical in their beauty, from the God particle to the zany notion that a cascade of multiverses exists.

Others assume that deprived of religion, the non-believer loses his or her moral compass, suffers a lobotomy of his morals and exists in an ethics-free nihilistic haze. But this notion is frankly insulting to humanity as it is built on the assumption that we are errant children who have to be coerced into doing right and avoiding wrong. The main difference between the morality of the faithful and faithless is that the non-believer is much freer to exercise reason to decide which ethics to uphold and which to jettison.

My convictions are entirely my own and I don’t expect others to adopt them. Mine is not a proselytising “faith”. I believe that everyone should find their own path and decide for themselves what they wish to believe in. All I ask is that others refrain from shoving their beliefs down my throat or try nullifying mine, as numerous Islamists have done over the years.

While I respect people’s religious beliefs and admire those of a forgiving and loving spiritual disposition, there are many who do not, or would not accord me the same right. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly outlaw atheism, there are other mechanisms for targeting non-believers. These include the vague, innovative and frightening legal concepts of “insulting” and “ridiculing” religion, as well as hisbah, which have been used by crusading Islamist lawyers and the state to target non-believers but far more often believers with a different interpretation of their faith.

What I’ve never been able to get my head around is how any centuries-old religion could feel insult, and why Islam would need self-appointed defenders when the Quran itself challenges non-Muslims to doubt, question and even mock. In fact, any faith which believes its truths are self-evident does not need any of its followers to coerce and intimidate others into obedience.

There are those who will dismiss what I say as the ranting of someone who has moved too far away from his roots and lived abroad for too long. Although I do not doubt that the phases I have spent in Europe have exposed me to alternative way of thinking, most of my drift away from religion occurred in Egypt, despite the numerous beautiful aspects I admire about faith here, from the festive excesses of Ramadan to the monastic frugalities of the desert.

Fortunately for me, I was able to sever my ties with religion in a less intense, demanding and pious environment. Others have not had that luxury, and I know quite a few atheists and agnostics who hide their true beliefs from their families or are discreet about them out of fear of losing their loved ones.

It might be tempting for some to view me as an aberration, even an abomination, but I can assure them I am by far not alone.  Although I was a rare voice when I first came out of the closet, the revolution has emboldened many more non-believers to speak their  mind, even when it comes at the great personal risk of ostracism and prosecution, risks I am relatively immune to now that I only visit Egypt.

For those who may be tempted to think that the revolution has brought with it decadent ideas, let me stress that non-believers have always been around in Egypt – often openly – and have played important roles in shaping the country’s identity. In fact, up until the 1970s, atheists and those who sailed close to the wind of non-belief were prominent in the country’s intelligentsia.

For example, the pioneer of socialism in Egypt, Salama Moussa, believed that people must depend only on their minds and that each of us must “take his destiny into his own hands.” It is widely reputed that Mustafa Mahmoud, the popular TV presenter who blended religion with science, was an atheist who found God, though he himself claimed that his earlier works criticising religion were his way of testing his faith.

One of Egypt’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the existentialist Abdel Rahman Badawi, wrote, in the 1940s, an encyclopaedia of atheists throughout Islamic history. And there have been plenty of those, such as the Dawkins of the Abbasid era Ibn Al-Rawandi.

There are even atheists who speculate that the number of non-believers in Egypt could potentially exceed the number of Christians. If true, that would make non-belief the second largest faith community.

For the foreseeable future, we will not know as nobody has bothered to recognise or count them, and the discrimination they face has led many to lead an underground existence. But what is certain is that, alongside belief, non-belief has always been an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric, and denying they exist only breeds hypocrisy.

It is time that atheists and agnostics have their rights recognised in full, including their right to freely believe what they want, their right not to be described as a member of one of the three heavenly faiths, and their right, along with other Egyptians, to access civil courts.

Above all, we need to be regarded as equal citizens and not as targets for prosecution… or worse, persecution.

 

About the author

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist, writer and blogger. He writes for a range of leading publications in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has spent half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. His website is www.chronikler.com. Follow him on @DiabolicalIdea

  • hasanuddin husin

    very very stupid man and ideas

    • Ender

      Although I enjoy the conciseness and conviction of your argument, would you care to elaborate? Why is the man stupid? And why are his ideas stupid?

      • zer0

        Not going to happen. Religion to most of the religious represents an integral part of who they are, it’s the result of life long indoctrination. The minute you question their religion — their world view — it will be translated in their minds immediately to a ferocious personal attack.

        • Guest

          The best way I have to come to understand it is that religion is a placebo. Neuroscientists have shown that placebos can have not only psychological benefits but it can drive physical improvements too. Now, the thing with a placebo is that it works only if you have full and unquestioning faith. So it is with religion. It doesn’t matter so much as to what you believe in, as long as you believe in it blindly and strongly. And, because of the placebo effect you could get benefits (like facing up to events that seem dire).

          Now, if the placebo is limited to a person’s spiritual life and personal faith, it wouldn’t really matter how irrational the belief was. The problem occurs though when the placebo is used by community leaders, clerics to achieve political goals. Then, its a ginormous mess and its not a religion anymore.

          • shaviv

            Then it just leads to zombie apocalypse, which is the best way to understand conflicts with religious nuts who are immune to facts, logic, reason and even their own well-being. Basically, the downside of excessive use of the placebo is an unhealthy addiction and zombification of the mind.

  • Brian Westley

    Here’s hoping Egypt recognizes more religious freedom soon, though it’s not looking too good at the moment…

    • aalamin

      You are free to massacre civilians with impunity, gravest of the sins in the eyes of all religions. How much more freedom you like?

      • Brian Westley

        I’d like the freedom to be an atheist in Egypt or any other country in the world. How’s that coming?

        • aalamin

          I also wish to be free from persecution practicing my religion. I guess for the near future none of us will have what we want, unfortunately.
          Best wishes.

          • shaviv

            The only persecution I see in Egypt is burning of churches. No one is stopping Egyptians from praying and practicing religion? Who is doing that? People are saying religion should not be mixed into politics, that is not persecution of religion. Religion ceases to be religion, if it has political goals.

          • Folina Rai

            What about MB offices burned by Christians and military thugs ?

          • shaviv

            How is that religious persecution?

          • Guest

            Who on earth said ‘Christians’ burned your offices?. your sectarian rhetoric is pathetic. you people are the shame of Egypt. – proud Egyptian Agnostic

          • Guest

            Who told you they burned by ‘Christians’? Your rampant aimless baseless sectarian rhetoric is devoid of any facts or reason. You people are the shame of Egypt and have 0 understanding of your own religion. – proud Egyptian agnostic.

        • Folina Rai

          But no freedom to be religious ? MB are being killed because they are Muslims.

          • Brian Westley

            But no freedom to be religious ?

            When did I say that? Oh, I never said that.

            MB are being killed because they are Muslims.

            No one ought to be killed for their religious beliefs; I think the MB would have more allies if they advocated for religious freedom, instead of e.g. saying Copts should not be eligible for the presidency as they announced in 2011.

  • Ender

    Another major concern for closet agnostics and atheists is the fear of being put to death for being an apostate.

    I’ve never understood it. What is so terrifying and threatening about an atheist?

    There is no rational argument.

    • natureschild3

      of course there is no rational argument, people who, as scott beaudette puts it believe in a “humanoid ‘micro-managing’ diety” a god who changes his mind on a whim and a prayer do not expect a rational world.

    • beliha

      The argument for putting people to death is shocking(besides the texts that demand it of course). I’ve asked around, Many sheikhs will actually tell you “because atheists shake peoples’ faith”. Which is like saying faith is such a weak thing that any atheist can destroy it.
      Which is actually kind of true.

  • Scott Beaudette

    Thank you Khaled for writing this excellent article. The thing I found amusing when living in Egypt was that the few people I discussed my opinions of religion with (similar to your own) really could not grasp the concept of how anyone can not believe in the humanoid “micro-managing” diety model, be it defined by Islam, Christianity or any other version. They thought I was totally insane, but had a great curiosity to actually understand. I grew up in an extremist Christian environment, surrounded by Evangelists who expected that anyone who didn’t share their exact definition of spirituality was purely evil. They did not care why I did not believe, they simply wanted me to disappear. These extremely “conservative” environments can be very hard to exist in when you are known to be “different”. It doesn’t matter what country or culture you are from, the bottom line is the same – non-believers, just like anyone else, are still moral and ethical people who made a choice to be personally responsible for our own set of values. We still find beauty and meaning in the world and in each other, through our own eyes. Good luck to you Khaled.

  • Charmedseeker

    Khaled Diab,

    A lot of modern Muslims will read this and say, “he became an atheist because he didn’t find the right interpretation of Islam. It’s because of the bad interpretations, not Islam itself!”
    Do you have anything to say to that sentiment? Did you do your fair share of interpretation-searching? I have been unsuccessful – I find the alternatives (e.g. “Progressive Muslims”) to be heavily dishonest and irrational. But I wonder whether most ex-Muslim atheists would’ve just became another form of religious if they had only searched more…

    • zer0

      That’s a twist on the No True Scotsman fallacy. The so called “right” interpretation is really nothing but their own interpretation, so they personalize Islam and cherry pick without even realizing it. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance where the religious does not like the bad stuff from her religion but still likes the good parts, so she unconsciously glues a few interpretations together and interpolate the gray areas then call it the “right” interpretation. It’s not really their fault as the religious text is filled with equivocations and contradictions that it is almost impossible to find general consistency.

      Now regardless of the interpretations out there, there are root logical flaws and philosophical issues with theistic religions that are not addressed by any of the Abrahamic religions, in fact to address some of these logical flaws will necessarily mean the nullification of the religion. The Bible or the Quran is a moral leper-colony, aside from the obviously intuitive yet contradicting moral commands, the moral structure of any of the Abrahamic religions by definition puts the believer in daily moral conundrums (e.g., Why will my Christian friend that always helps homeless Muslims will go to hell? Why will Bill Gates go to hell even though he’s effectively eradicating Malaria and Polio from Africa and poor Muslim countries?), doesn’t God care more about us helping each other or is he really just cares about people believing in him? Is he a jealous God? etc.

      Of course that and you simply just can’t ignore the colossal mountains of evidence that tear through all religions fairy tales and stories. Which in my opinion is simply quite enough if you care about the truth more than anything else. Which will not be the case for a religious person.

      It depends on what the hypothetical Muslim in question is looking for. If she is looking for the truth, then ultimately she will end up as an agnostic atheist. If however she were looking for a likable interpretation, then she will find a few and her brain will do the interpolation to fill in the logical gaps created by inconsistencies, though she will probably end up more skeptical than before but not anymore a gnostic theist.

      • aalamin

        If you were to have intelligence more than God, then people would rather worship you than God. Since that is not the case, leave God to do His job, to decide whom He chooses to put to hell. Worry about yourself my friend.
        I think your logic of interpolation also works for atheism. When you are unable to understand some part of religion, your brain just extrapolates and makes to deny the whole thing, even though normally you’d agree with those things.

        • shaviv

          Why don’t you follow your own advice and let God do his job? The only people claiming they know what God wants to do are religious people. Why don’t you follow your advice and leave God alone?

    • shaviv

      Why should it be that hard? And, if its a matter of right interpretation, then you don’t need a religion at all, because one could make any random interpretation and call it Islam or Christianity or Bong. Religion becomes irrelevant. What is hypocritical is that the devout claim that Islamic texts are perfect and clear. If so, what is the need for interpretations? Why so many Islamic “scholars”?

      • aalamin

        That’s called diversity, and it is actually a blessing that God did give you room to think and interpret. Otherwise, you’d be same as a robot or an animal.

        • shaviv

          Then why do people want to impose their interpretation on others? You are making a case for secularism and free thought, yet you support those who are against it? Cognitive dissonance, what?

  • 12vengine

    I think there should be a place where ex-Muslims can migrate to for security reasons.. Some of these Muslim countries are extremely dangerous for us. esp where I come from :S

    Great article btw.. Hope to see more brave people like you come out so we can establish equal rights and security for us someday

    • aalamin

      Good riddance if you all migrate from muslim lands. Please do so asap.
      BTW, I think the writer’s logics against Islam are all flimsy, and the questions about nonmuslims going to hell, Quran vs. science, woman and sexual issues all have their answers from many scholars. Just the writer did not find those palatable, or profitable, to accept them. Or he simply did not look for them hard enough. Pathetic!

      • 12vengine

        Expected intolerable Muslim attitude.. I wish they were kind like their religion says ‘religion of peace’ but no one exhibits the peace aspect..

  • aalamin

    I feel sorry that you lost your faith in a muslim country. Don’t you think that you lost the meaning of religion because majority of those muslim population either don’t practice the religion in full or they are ignorant.
    You should not judge a religion by merely the practices of some, and certainly not after you’re influenced by propaganda of their enemies.

    And lastly, there is no real heroism in your so called “coming out of the closet” in denying religion and professing godlessness, when your like-minded secular people with the help of godless Egyptian army are butchering so many muslims in all over Egypt now. Not a single condemnation from you about this massacre shows how much morality remains in you after you take up atheism.

    Just plain opportunism now that you’re living in the comfort of west and probably getting paid because of your attacking religion. Prove me wrong if you can.

    • Guest

      Conspiracy theories cannot be proved right or wrong, because everything is propaganda and there is no acceptance of facts. One cannot prove anything right or wrong when the other is living in an alternate fantasy land.

  • robertm2000

    It’s not really possible for you to be any more than a personal agnostic – all you can say is that you haven’t met God. In order to say with any certainty that God does not exist, you would have to search every corner of the universe, at all levels, physical and spiritual; you would have to prove that everyone who has ever said they have met God is not telling the truth; you would have to live through every moment of time since it began and for as long as it has existed. Ultimately you have, or should have, the freedom to say and believe that; I should have the freedom to disagree with you; neither of us should be able to take action to stop anyone who doesn’t believe what we do.

    When it comes to religious freedom, that is something that indeed can be understood. A laissez-faire libertarian society would be the best place for true religious freedom to grow.

    • Snowcrash

      If that is your logical position on religion, how is that different from someone who believes in astrology, or fairies, for that matter? Of course you can believe in those things and similarly, other people can form an opinion of you based on such beliefs.

  • Bruce Taylor

    The mere fact that you dare write this means that there is still hope for Egypt. I had just about written it off…

    Best of luck.

  • Jeremy Rodell

    Congratulations on this clear, brave and respectful article.

  • Jodi T

    Beautiful. Thank you!

  • AmericanMuse

    Karl Marx said it best: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    • Sammyb

      Are a Karl Marx follower?

  • maurice eisenmann

    Dear Khaled,

    People like you should have full right to practice their beliefs like anyone else.

    Freedom of beliefs includes someone who belongs to recognized religious beliefs like JUDAISM, ISLAM or CHRISTIANITY, but any other concept including those whose belied concept is concurrent with current scientific thoughts. Real Islam followers shouldn’t encourage that thought concept but certainly shouldnt try to supress it either.Here is translation of 105th Kuran Sura Al Kafirun which adressess your state of mind. Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship.And I shall not worship that which ye worship.Nor will ye worship that which I worship.Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.

    No coercion in beliefs, same way like you cant make anyone to love someone.That is in you and one day your state of mind and your belief might be changed, just because everything is changing. “panta rei” would say greek philosopher Heraklit.Everything is matter of change.Same talken please respect all aspect of someone religious belief and avoid temptation to be ANTI-RELIGIOUS ATHEIST, like secularist in Turkey who repressed Muslims for long time, or communist in USSR who repressed any religious belief.Be the one who will be beacon of true freedom of mind. Please dont ridicule people who have different beliefs.Keep yours and respect others

  • nietzschesbreeches

    Yeslam timmak, akhi!

  • Guest

    There are many of us. I thank you for your beautiful article.


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