An abbreviated version of this chapter appeared in Secular Nation and The Freethinker.
At age nine, Janet prayed to forgive the camp counselor who sexually abused her, an enormous test of her faith. Her Christian background encouraged her to forgive him. Praying did not help, but what did help was when she had nightmares in which she killed her enemies. “My brain avenged me,” she says, calling her nightmares a healing defense mechanism.
The molester, a camp counselor and children’s book author, sexually abused hundreds of children, including Janet. Her father, a preacher, despite warmth and good intentions, did not know how to respond when this ugliness reared its head. Like every little girl, she wanted her father to be angry at the offender and protect her, but her father was “never that person.” She did not testify at the trial, feeling too angry. Raised to believe that God must have a plan for her, she thought God had allowed the sexual abuse, but did not know why it happened to her. It took her years to sort it out. Her father couldn’t reconcile that such a bad thing had happened to his daughter since it didn’t fit with his concept of God’s rewards and punishments.
Janet asked her father if people like the sex offender could still go to heaven, and he said yes, which didn’t make sense to her: “As a kid, I thought of heaven as a place with rainbows and unicorns. Child molesters shouldn’t get in.” Her father said that if bad people accepted Jesus with their last dying breath, they got into heaven. “You could be a horrible person your whole life. This seemed wrong to me. What justice system is this? Part of the comfort of religion is that bad people will go to hell, and good people will get rewarded.”
As a teenager, Janet dated a boy who was abusive to her, and again, her father knew about it and did not act. When something was bothering him, he went into a room, closed the door, and prayed, while she wanted him to talk and deal with situations directly and found his passive aggression very frustrating. Both abusive incidents had a huge impact on Janet’s belief system, her concepts of good and bad, trust and deceit, and the realization that her father was not a hero.
Originally from Maine, Janet is in her 30’s and lives in New York with her husband. She works in retail and is realizing her goal of being a professional musician.
Janet was a “PK” (preacher’s kid), whose father was a Protestant Methodist minister who went to seminary as a young man; his own father was a minister, as well. Instead of belonging to a single ministry, he filled in at various churches. He traveled around New England working as a resort minister at ski lodges, starting services in resort towns, and Janet and her sister enjoyed skiing when they tagged along on his travels. In some ways, Janet was very proud of him: he was a cheerful, warm and supportive preacher who comforted the sick, helped the needy and was a very loving father. Some of his views were callous and unsympathetic, leaving Janet ambivalent about her feelings towards him.
Janet’s father didn’t really have a denomination since he didn’t have a single church. When Janet asked what he would be if he had a denomination, he responded Southern Baptist, which surprised her, since she perceived this denomination as “very fire and brimstone,” and her father, in contrast, was a very happy-go-lucky guy. She asked him why he would want a church that would not accept him, since he was divorced, to which he responded, “I didn’t divorce my wife. She divorced me.” Today, he is happily remarried to another divorced woman who has a good sense of humor, is an active member of their church, and conservative. Janet thinks they make a great match.
Her parents divorced when Janet was four. Her father didn’t believe a woman should work outside the home and that wives should obey their husbands, conflicting with Janet’s mother, who wanted to work, or at least have the option. While her father was born-again, her mother came from a Catholic family, but was veering away from Catholicism, saying that the Protestant God was “nicer.” She did not want her children raised Catholic and raised Janet and Janet’s sister from her subsequent marriage as Protestant (Janet’s father officially adopted her half-sister). Janet and her mother’s family went to a liberal church where she sang in choir and participated in the youth group. She enjoyed Sunday school and the liberal atmosphere, which did not include yelling about fire and brimstone. It was a positive experience and Janet had trouble giving it up later.
As a child, Janet thought much of the Bible was meant to be interpreted rather than taken literally. Her mother encouraged her to ask questions and even encouraged her to experiment with other churches. Despite this liberalism, no one presented the option of not going to church at all nor did it occur to Janet. Probably, this is the case for many American kids.
“Mom was an awesome woman who went back to school after her divorce [from Dad] and raised us for a dozen years before remarrying,” Janet says of her mother, who became a police officer and then a teacher. She encouraged Janet to be skeptical and didn’t subscribe to a strict belief system. As a child, Janet told her mother that an item in her history book might be incorrect and her mother told her to research the event. Today, her mother teaches civics and history and provides education to troubled students and those who need extra help. Having rebelled against her family of origin, she and her siblings are liberal: “She was always strong and liberated,” says Janet.
Janet’s father, though divorced from her mom, was still at times very involved with his kids. He would get together with his two daughters most weekends and holidays, but since weekends with him were his working hours (Sundays), he didn’t always give his children his full attention. Sometimes seeing him was good, but other times Janet and her sister felt that they were just in his way. Her dad’s religion often proved an obstacle.
The preacher didn’t celebrate Christmas, believing it was just for God, but compensated for this on his daughters’ birthdays and Valentine’s day. Nevertheless, when the girls visited him during winter break, there were gifts for him in the house, since congregates sometimes give Christmas gifts to their preachers, and Janet felt alienated. Janet was glad that her parents were divorced so that she didn’t live with her father’s oppressive views full-time.
Another point of contention with her father was Janet’s interest in fantasy and science fiction books and movies. She believed that imagination was a treasured thing and made life interesting and reality bearable. Her father disapproved of films like The Neverending Story and Labyrinth, since the characters had super powers, which only God could have. She related that the Chronicles of Narnia series of novels created an analogy of heaven. From those stories, she developed her idea of what heaven was as a kid: an awesome place where people could do whatever they wanted, with castles and flying carpets.
“God was first, work second, family third” to Janet’s father, a sentiment he said in front of his family. Janet notes that the statement was reflective of the Bible, in which Jesus told his followers to leave their families to join him. Janet thought that God was selfish since she wanted to spend time with her dad, who was busy writing sermons, checking on people in hospitals, and praying. Often, he would go into a room, close the door, and pray for hours at a time. On the plus side, his absence did allow Janet to bond with her sister, with whom she otherwise did not get along, since during his alone time they only had each other. Their father told them that he wanted to see them more often, but his work demands trumped this. As the girls got older, Janet’s sister rebelled against the church, having lost interest in visiting their father.
Janet’s maternal grandmother, who was “not a fan of dad,” described him to Janet’s mother: “He was too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.” Her mother quoted this to Janet when, as a teenager, she couldn’t understand why her father always put his work first.
When Janet was fifteen, her father was witnessing (trying to convert people). Upon meeting a young gay man dying of AIDS, he told the patient that it was his fault and God was punishing him for being gay. The preacher warned him to accept Jesus’s salvation before he died. Janet couldn’t believe that her father would be so thoughtless to a man who was dying of a painful disease, but her father was proud of himself, unaware of the pain he caused. While Janet was still Christian at that time, she could not believe he would condemn a dying person and thought it was the most awful thing she ever heard. Similarly, when sponsoring Janet in a walk for AIDS, he commented, “well, that’ll take care of the gays.” She could not wrap her arms around the paradox of a warm, loving man being so callous.
Continuing her journey for a spiritual life in college, Janet attended a liberal church in New York that she liked. When her father came to visit, he said the church members weren’t real Christians since they accepted other religions and gay people. Janet thought he would be happy she was going to any church at all.
Janet gradually detached herself from Christianity during her twenties as she learned more about the Bible and read about how Biblical stories were lifted from other mythologies, such as Greco-Roman. Noting that religions could not all be correct, she came to the realization that one’s religion is the result of the nation of birth and who one’s parents were. As a child, she avoided reading Revelations, “the unpleasant stuff,” and as an adult understood that people were cherry-picking the parts that they liked from the Bible. At twenty-two, Janet still believed in God, but was no longer going to church.
Janet found ways to be spiritual without religion. During her investigation of other belief systems, she grew fond of Pagan culture, although less in a believing sense than because it was interesting to her. She could not really believe in fairies or other mythological beings in Paganism, but found them intriguing as this belief teaches respect for the earth. She also found the paranormal fascinating. “We don’t know everything about how energy moves,” she says, discussing how she can borrow practices from religion without actually believing. “I can meditate without being religious. You don’t have to believe in the dogma.”
Janet’s father wanted to know if, at age twenty-two, she was sleeping over at her boyfriend’s apartment, hoping that she was not having premarital sex. When she told him it was none of his business, he said that must mean that she was not a virgin, telling her that he would be very sad if he went to heaven and did not see her there. He wanted to save her soul and was very disappointed, gently telling her that she was going to hell. After that exchange, she didn’t speak to him for months. “I felt like a good person. If I felt guilty, that was between me and God, not my father.”
After half a year, Janet decided there were some things that she could not talk about with her father, such as politics and personal relationships, and he did not have the privilege of knowing when things were bothering her if he was going to be judgmental. With a mental list of conversational topics to avoid, she was able to speak with her father again, but the subject of religion inevitably arose; it was, after all, his profession. When she was seriously questioning the existence of God at twenty-five, she mentioned to her father that she was not going to church anymore. He asked her outright if she accepted Jesus, and she said, “Not anymore.”
When Janet got married at twenty-five, she and her husband made a point of of not getting married in a church, as they didn’t think God had to approve of their marriage. Guests were surprised that her father did not perform the service, which was minimally religious. She was glad that her father attended, but thought he was probably a little disappointed about the wedding being mostly secular.
Janet’s husband grew up with his parents in a Masonic sect. When he was twelve, he went to a couple of their services, but did not like them and his parents left him alone about it. He never believed in any of it and today calls himself an atheist. Janet says that she was lucky since when she married him at twenty-five, she was still somewhat religious, and her husband helped convince her that there was no God. He never told her she was irrational for believing in God or pressured her. Janet says that if he had fought her on the issue, it may have backfired and she would have gone back to religion. He supported her every step of the way and was willing to talk about her religious struggles, all the while realizing that she would eventually figure it out. Together, the couple read books and watched YouTube lectures about atheism.
Janet talked about atheism with her mother and husband: her lack of faith and anger at religion, particularly its hypocrisy and greed, but couldn’t call herself an “atheist.” She instead called herself agnostic. Then last year, walking in the snow in Boston with her husband one evening, Janet looked at the stars, and saw “just saw stars”: “I didn’t think of it as heaven. I thought, oh, they’re just stars, but they’re still amazing.” She had been reading Hitchens and Dawkins, watching related videos on YouTube, and was interested in rational thought. She talked about this with her mother, who had been thinking the same way, describing her own feelings as agnostic, even though she had been in organized religion for years.
It was fun for Janet to share that moment with her mother, but she mourned the loss of religion, feeling lost. Before, she kept the idea of God and it was harder than she thought to give that up. No longer could she believe in heaven, and along with it, the comfort of believing that deceased family members were there and she would see them again one day. She had to transition into thinking that she could carry the memories of her loved ones.
On the other hand, she was relieved that God couldn’t see you at all time. She describes losing God as liberating, freeing herself from the control of religion, and embracing humanity and her conscience. “I was no longer feeling constantly judged. I no longer felt God was always looking over my shoulder, or that I needed to apologize.”
As of writing, she has not told her father that she is an atheist. The closest she came was writing a song called “A New Belief,” of which she made a professional recording, which she played for her father:
Twisting a new reality
Into what I need it to be
Doesn’t help in the long run
Doesn’t seem to get anything done
It seems, it would seem to me
What I need, what I need
Is a New Belief
A New Belief
Well, I’ve read everyone’s sides and I
Wonder if I was better off blind
But at least I’m out of the valley of darkness
Where has it left me?
I need a New Belief
Tearing apart what I used to believe
Not sure I took enough time to grieve
If I could go back 20 years of my life
I’m sure, I’d still make the same mistakes twice
It seems, it would seem to me
What I need, what I need
Is a New Belief
A New Belief
Well I’ve read everyone’s sides
And I know I was better off blind
But I still find doors slamming closed
I climbed out of that shadow and I
Ran through the halls of indifference
And I’m burnt by all these scathing lies
Where does that leave me?
I need a New Belief
Where’s my salvation
Where’s my salvation
I lost myself
I need a New Belief
When her father said the song bothered him, she said it was about how she was trying to figure out what was going on. He said he knew she was against organized religion and was not a Christian. Janet says that if he knew she were an atheist, he would probably pray for her, thinking he failed to save her soul and that she was going to hell. She does not believe that coming out to him would do any good, saying it would do nothing except hurt him. For this reason, her father is the only person to whom she isn’t “out.”
Recently, Janet was talking about Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Hitchens’ God is Not Great and the anti-religion movement with her mother. Her mother agreed with Janet’s thoughts and thought her daughter’s interview about atheism was a good idea. Janet’s mother said that when she was a child, she had heard of atheists as heathens and horrible people. Of the women in her family, Janet describes herself as the most radical with regards to rejecting religion.
Until recently, Janet did not know there were so many freethinkers. Despite living in liberal cities like New York and Boston, belief or lack thereof in God did not come up in ordinary conversation. Today, when it does come up, she is willing to help other people realize the possibility that God does not exist. She agrees that today’s young people who are interested in atheism have an easier time because of the internet and the number of atheists coming out, since otherwise they could feel extremely isolated.
The atmosphere of religion can be alienating and upsetting. Janet and her husband live near a Hasidic neighborhood and she feels invisible to the Orthodox Jews who are her neighbors. She and her husband were there one day during Pesach (Passover) when a Hasidic man said hello to them and she was surprised that he reached out, since they normally don’t speak to outsiders. Nevertheless, while Janet used to think that Hasidim were quaint, her better understanding of the damage religion has done really changed her perception and such visible and strict religiosity upset her, especially with regards to religion imposed on children.
If her father had not been in the clergy, Janet’s feelings about religion may have been better, since he had put his parishioners ahead of his daughters. Speculating on what he was like before he entered seminary, Janet thinks of her father as a really fun, cool person, who liked cars and music, just as she does, and wishes she knew him then. Her childhood would have been different if he were around more as his work in the clergy interrupted Janet’s life.
Like many atheists, Janet says that he has gone from not particularly caring to being anti-religion. She is also a fan of Pat Condell, a comedian/commentator who derives his material from his atheism, particularly the stance of new atheism in that one should not simply respect religion just for being religion. With humor and insight, Condell talks about the dangers of kowtowing to and placating religion to the detriment of society and freedom. Many other comedians, such as Bill Maher and Louis Black, are doing the same.
“The war on terror is really about greed, and a war of religion,” Janet says when asked about current issues. She notes that moderates passively let backwardness or tragedies such as terrorism happen by enabling their fundamentalist co-religionists. “Terror in everyday life in a theocracy, like Saudi Arabia, is only tolerated due to religious dogma,” which needs to be abolished by people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian critic of Islam who was a Dutch politician. Janet believes Christian Americans support the Iraq war in part because they want to “save” Muslims. Instead of providing those nations with amnesty, aid, food and medicine, many Christians believe that converting Muslims to Christianity is the solution.
“People need to learn for themselves and ask questions, but the administration wants to dumb us down and make us sheep,” she says, since questioning things such as the war in Iraq is considered anti-American. “It’s dangerous to have people afraid of being called unpatriotic.”
Janet is angry about the hypocrisy in religion, such when the U.S. soldier Jeremy Hall was berated by his major for holding an atheist meeting, which the major referred to as unpatriotic, and threatened to bring charges against those who attended the meeting. (After Hall filed a lawsuit against the army, he was sent home from Iraq early since other soldiers were threatening him.)
Janet is proud that she managed to get through her abusive situations and their aftermath and is in a wonderful relationship now. The best conversations with her father in the past few years were about aliens and history. She avoids talking about current events, since her father, who relies on Fox News, is relatively sheltered; for example, he did not know that President George W. Bush had a cocaine problem or a drunk driving record. Since she knows her father’s opinions on things such as abortion rights, the war in Iraq and gay rights, she is often frustrated, thinking, “how can you be such a jerk?” After all, he never had to deal with these issues directly, since she never did drugs, got pregnant, joined the army, etc. Despite his loving and amiable personality, Janet asks herself why, if her father is basking in God, he is not happier. On the contrary, he is often depressed. “It never occurred to him to not follow a religion.” Many people who follow religion believe that this cures people of depression and hopelessness and often ask atheists how they can get out of bed in the morning.
Ultimately, being free of God is a positive experience for Janet: “living in the moment is more relevant now that I’m not heavenly minded, so life seems far more important as an atheist. I have come to celebrate that, rather than mourn the loss of my faith.”
An abbreviated version of this chapter appeared in American Atheist
Six-year-old Sayid saw a parade of Shiites literally beat themselves out of sorrow and mourning for Mohammed’s family during Ashoura. During this parade of masochistic piety in Pakistan, the nation of the boy’s birth, one man came up to him beating himself with a chain covered with blades. It did not seem right to Sayid. Today, he sites the flagellation incident as one of the pivotal moments in his growing skepticism of religion.
Sayid saw a sight that no child ought to see and was something that he would only have seen in a Muslim culture. In contemporary times, the violent masochism he witnessed would be unusual, if not unheard of, in any other religion. Many Americans would consider his witnessing such an act to be a form of child abuse.
Although his friends and family are mostly understanding and open-minded about Sayid’s atheism, being of a Muslim background can be a powerful deterrent to atheism and free thought. Relative to other religions, few Muslims leave Islam. Under some circumstances, to come out as an atheist or even to publicly criticize Islam is to sign one’s own death warrant, such as with author Salman Rushdie and Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
As an assimilated Muslim living in the United States in a relatively tolerant family, Sayid has thankfully not met this kind of response. Sayid has seen people shun him because of his atheism, but in general, he has been able to cope with that response. Once, when he moved to a new home in Memphis, Tennessee, a neighbor dropped by to introduce herself. She asked Sayid which church he went to, which is a common bit of small talk in the Bible Belt. When he responded that he did not worship, she literally turned and walked away.
Sayid, a chemical engineer, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. He was raised as a Shiite Muslim, a sect of Islam smaller than Sunna, whose members purport that the descendants of the prophet Mohammed are the best sources of the Qu’ran. This contrasts with Sunna, the majority of Muslims, who derive their faith and ideology directly from Mohammed.
Sayid emigrated to the United States with his family at age nine. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his mother, father, and sister still live. Sayid moved to Nashua, New Hampshire in 2000 with his wife and two children, now aged ten and thirteen; partly, he moved to the Northeast because he was tired of living in the South. Many other atheists and freethinkers have had the same experience.
His parents are Shiite, although his mother much more so than his father; most of the males in his family are less religious, while the females are stricter. Growing up, he took part in praying and festivals. Since his father moved to the U.S. three years before rest of his family, his mother was his only caretaker during those years and religion was the only option in the household. While it was tough on him not having his father, other men in the family were around to serve as male role models.
As a child in Pakistan, Sayid went to mosque with his family. His uncle was not an atheist, but he was a skeptic, and taught Sayid from a young age that it was all right to ask questions. Becoming an atheist is rarely an overnight process and Sayid was raised to believe certain things were true, but by his mid-teens, he realized religion did not make sense and he needed science to be convinced of something.
Both of Sayid’s parents were born in India and had friends who were Hindus, which was relevant since there has been enormous conflict between Hindus and Muslims over the years. His mother had grown up Northeast of Delhi and had many Hindu friends all her life. He asked his mother, “If you were born into a Hindu family, would you be Hindu?” She, of course, said yes. He then asked, “Would you have gone to hell?” to which she responded that that was a silly question. Sayid’s father, from Hyderabad, had friends of many religions: Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Parsis. Both parents are open-minded, well-read and well-educated. His mother has an MA in education and his father has a business background and sells pharmaceuticals. His father’s side was especially liberal, well-traveled, financially well-off and well-educated. Sayid’s paternal grandfather was educated in the United Kingdom.
Living in the U.S., the family had many Hindu friends because they wanted to be with people from the Indian subcontinent. The family expanded who they wanted to be around as there were fewer Muslims in Memphis at the time and those from the subcontinent formed a close social community. Sayid himself had a few friends not descended from that part of the world, but all of his parents’ friends were.
Since few Muslims lived in Memphis when Sayid’s family moved there, religious activities took place at home, including prayers and festivals. Three of his mother’s brothers lived nearby and Sayid’s family often got together with their friends and extended family. When a mosque opened in Memphis, they went on Sundays. While Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, Sayid said that in the U.S., Muslims often attend services on Sundays so that they will not have to take time off from their jobs. He points out, “This [Qur’an] is a holy book written by God, and now you interpret it for your convenience.” He noted with irony that God/Allah was apparently understanding about U.S. business hours (in the tracts of Western religion, God is rarely understanding. This is the same God that ordered his followers to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy on punishment of death, the same penalty for breaking any of the ten commandments). Ideas such as this made no sense to Sayid and he started to see sectarian issues. He went to mosque to comply with his family’s wishes, but enjoyed it when he went, since he could hang out with the other kids. There was, however, a lot of “fire and brimstone” involved in services, referring to vivid images of hell and damnation.
Like almost all children in Muslim families, Sayid learned how to say prayers and read the Qur’an, which had to be read in Arabic. Growing up, he read the Qur’an as well as the Old Testament, New Testament and Bhagavad Gita. He found religions interesting and was struck that the five percent of differences between these religions caused so many enormous problems.
Sayid disengaged from the Muslim community as he grew more aware of his feelings about the existence of God. He went to college at Christian Brothers University, a Catholic university, since it had the best engineering program in the area and offered the best scholarship. His curriculum required him to take a class in religion, which he fulfilled by taking World Religions and Existentialism. Sayid did not hide his atheism, “even in Memphis,” noting that atheism is usually considered offensive in a Southern city. If someone asked him about his religious beliefs, he would tell him, feeling it was nothing to be ashamed of.
By Sayid’s twenties, his mother and father knew that he was an atheist, but he didn’t exactly “come out;” his parents surmised it. When his mother consecrated food by praying over it, he would not eat those foods. His father noticed and asked about this. Sayid said he didn’t believe in the practice and his father told his mother, who was worried that she hadn’t raised him right. Since then, she has grown to accept it, but still worries about Sayid’s own children’s religious upbringing.
Co-workers knew about Sayid’s atheism. Some were very religious and bombarded him with literature, but he laughed it off. Interestingly, a former boss was a born-again Christian and the two could talk about religion and had heated debates. They knew they could not convince each other that the other was wrong. Like nearly all “out” atheists, Sayid sometimes talks with religious people, including fundamentalist Muslims, born-again Christians, Hindus and Catholics, who really exhaust him: “They have limited information about the issue, especially in the South. They have a very limited background and aren’t open to listening to anything else.”
Sayid had some very good friends who realized he was an atheist and ended their friendship, although that did not bother him. One woman he knew had a fiance who ended their engagement when he discovered she was an atheist, to which Sayid responded that it was a good thing she found out then, not later, that her fiance felt that way, since this enabled her to prevent a bad marriage and consequent divorce.
Those who believe in God inevitably ask atheists how they can have a moral code if they have no God. Sayid speaks for many atheists when he says that he does have a moral code and it is stronger because he does not believe in God; his morality is based on reasons other than fear, as morality based on God often is. Many, if not most, people who steal, kill, rape, etc. do believe in God, and certainly not every atheist commits those crimes. He notes that the Golden Rule, treat others as you yourself would want to be treated, exists everywhere, not just in the Bible.
“People who believe in God are one hundred percent confident they’re right about their religion, but people of another religion are also sure,” he says, describing a paradox similar to the question he asked his mother about Hinduism. Even if there is a God, Sayid wouldn’t want him (or her, it, etc). Cherry-picking from the Bible is common in Western religion. Abomination of homosexuality, such as in the famous quote from Leviticus, “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination,” is followed a few paragraphs later by God’s order not to cut one’s beard or the hair on the side of one’s head. Sayid cites what Sam Harris, in A Letter to a Christian Nation, wrote: all of Western humanity has come to believe that slavery is morally wrong, even though Bible says it is acceptable and even provides something of an instruction manual (Exodus 21:2-6). He says about those who want to follow the Bible literally, “If you’re going to do it, be consistent, but if you’re consistent, you’re crazy.” It is different to him if someone wants to discuss which biblical passages are relevant and not relevant; that is a different argument.
Sayid points out that Osama bin Laden thinks he thinks he is a true, honest Muslim, but then so does Sayid’s mother about herself. It goes without saying that their morals and behavior are very different. She and every Muslim Sayid knows says that terrorism is horrible and is not justified by Islam. If two very different people of supposedly the same religion have such completely different beliefs, how does one know who’s right?
Sayid’s wife is half English, half Indian/Pakistani, and he describes her as a deist, by which he means, “there is some higher power, maybe, but not actively involved in our lives.” Her mother is a secular Muslim. Sayid’s sisters are both secular and married to non-Muslim Americans; at least one sister is agnostic. Their mother is worried that her own religiosity didn’t take with her children or (so far) her grandchildren.
Today, Sayid participates in religious events for social reasons, such as attending his uncle’s funeral. He and his wife are raising their children to be open-minded. If his kids grow up and decide to have a religion, he would not argue, but he will not brainwash his children into believing something. When his mother comes to visit his kids, she reads them the Qur’an, even though it has to be read in Arabic, which the kids do not know.
For now, both of Sayid’s children do not identify as any religion. His daughter’s Facebook page says she is an atheist. Last year when he was in the hospital, the staff asked his nine-year-old son if he had a religious preference and he responded, “atheist.” Sayid never told his son to be an atheist, only saying that he himself was an atheist, didn’t believe in God and he didn’t think he needed to.
Because of his assimilation, Sayid does not feel that his Muslim origins make atheism harder for him than for someone of a Christian, Jewish, or other background. For someone of Muslim roots who is less-assimilated, it might be more difficult: “Certainly, it has been harder to stay engaged with the Muslim community as an atheist because religion so dominates the cultural and social network.”
If a Saudi were an atheist (and one marvels that this could happen at all in such an oppressive theocracy), she would obviously keep it to herself while going through the motions of Islam unless she moved to a free country. Sayid believes that as more Muslims emigrate to the West and are getting better educated, atheism will make more sense to them on an intellectual level.
While most religions would react negatively to someone who rejects their faith, in contemporary times, it is only in Islam in which doing so could lead to death. The word fatwa, meaning a death warrant on a heretic of Islam, has most famously been declared on former Muslims Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-born Dutch politician who wrote her memoirs in Infidel. Only the extremists want fatwas, but it is only Muslim extremists who do, as opposed to Christian, Jewish, Hindu or any other extremists. It is difficult to imagine any Jews in the modern world, or at least a critical mass of Jews, calling for the death of someone because of a cartoon or a book. Hirsi Ali is a fugitive exiled from Holland, her adopted nation, and must live under constant security ever since her Dutch colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered by extremists in 2004 for their short film, Submission, which criticized Islam’s treatment of women.
Ibn Warraq is the Pakistani author of Why I am not a Muslim and other books criticizing Islam and founder of the Institution for the Secularization of Islamic Society. Ayatollah Kohmeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989 inspired Warraq in his work. Rushdie was driven underground for a decade and the fatwa extended to publishers and anyone else connected to The Satanic Verses. Extremists threatened bookstores and bombed two bookstores in Berkeley, California. They threatened and bombed even more bookstores in England, resulting in many stores refusing to carry the novel– a great victory for the terrorists, but certainly an understandable response on behalf of anyone connected to the book. A Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and two other people connected to Verses survived assassination attempts. In 2005, in the wake of the Danish cartoons about Mohammed the prophet which inspired Muslim riots, Warraq elected not to be seen in public for fear of his safety and that of his family, but more recently, he has gone public again, under security.
Warraq contributes to the website Islam Watch, organized by self-described “Muslim Apostates.” The website discusses how dangerous leaving Islam can be: “Muslims who attempt to modernize and reform its unremitting bigotry, mindless rituals and its barbaric and draconian punitive measures are targeted for annihilation….As we thoroughly understood that Islam was nothing but a lie through our meticulous investigation for decades, we left Islam silently because of the fear for our lives.”
As to contemporary religious conflicts, like most atheists, Sayid is baffled and exasperated that evolution is still “controversial.” His chemical engineering background plays some part in his feelings on the subject. “I have a huge problem with religion when it comes to its dogmatic non-science. This plays out in the debate on evolution and the role of ‘intelligent design’ in the classroom, in the political discussions regarding stem cell research, environmental policy, etc. I think that my scientific background has taught me to respect the scientific method, and to accept that we will never know everything, but that we can learn a little more every day. I respect physicists, biologists, and chemists who perform research to develop a better understanding of our world, and am offended that people with no background whatsoever in the discipline believe their opinions are equally valid as those of people who have spent their lives in the field.” It is worth noting that engineers such as Sayid, as opposed to biologists and physicists, are less likely to be atheists since their research does not directly confront them with evidence that contradicts religious origins of life and the universe.
Sayid staunchly supports the separation of church and state as a basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution. Separation of church and state is an ongoing battle in the U.S. and we see it in many forms, such as in the lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America, a tax-funded group which refused to admit atheists. Likewise, it disturbs him that the religious beliefs of politicians play any role in their electability. A vast majority of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist; it appears that in most American elections, being a devout Christian helps a politician’s chances.
“I don’t go to the extreme of worrying that our money says ‘In God We Trust,’ but I am bothered by discussions about displays of the ten commandments in public places. I am very worried about the judges who have been pushed forward by the current administration, especially those who think the Bible is just as important a document as the U.S. Constitution when deciding cases.” This is relevant since as of writing, it was only in the past couple of months that then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee campaigned (unsuccessfully) to apply Christian standards to the Constitution, saying that it was easier to change the Constitution than the word of God.
The war on terror bothers Sayid, who says, “Osama bin Laden and his ilk are lunatics.” He does not see how one can declare war on terrorism, since terrorism is a concept. “I see the war on terror much like the war on drugs,” Sayid continues. “It will be an ineffectual, never-ending fight that will allow the government, Republican or Democratic, to implement laws and policies that will suit its purposes.” He believes that terrorism is rooted in politics and not religion: “The reason the Islamic fundamentalists are able to find converts to their cause isn’t because Muslims are naturally more prone to violence than Christians or Jews. Rather, I think it is because so many of them live in oppressive societies in which a small, wealthy group controls the lives of the nation. This is the case throughout the Middle East where there are so many monarchies. The religious fundamentalists are able to find a foothold by providing services to the poor.” According to Sayid, it would be more effective to fight terrorism by supporting the democratic oppositions throughout the Muslim world and providing access to social services and education for the poor, not by bombing and military invasion. This, he continues, would require the U.S. to take action against the Saudi royal family and President Pervez Musharaf in Pakistan. “It may well mean more expensive oil in the short term, but it is the only viable solution I see.”
Sayid was glad to read that the percentage of self-described atheists in America has more than doubled in the 1990s, but the current 15% of Americans describing themselves as atheists, non-theists or agnostics is not enough. As someone who has lived in the South and the Northeast, he agrees that it is “safer” to be an atheist in the Northeast or the West coast and a larger struggle in the South and most of the Midwest, particularly for politicians, teachers, and other public figures. “I think too many people are distrustful of atheists. I think atheists are now the most reviled group in the country…this is an indication that people don’t know who atheists are; we are probably considered devil worshipers or pagans by most people.”
Just kidding. This is Not My God, a site for the personal aspect of atheism. I'm putting together a book with that title, having already 20 interviews lined up, but I still want to hear from more of you.
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