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Artículo The 'new' minority? How atheists leaving conservative religion navigate life after control Religion


The 'new' minority? How atheists leaving conservative religion navigate life after control



Turning against your family and friends' religious values often comes at a high price, but the internet is helping young people come to terms with their atheism

Anna Freeman

30 Noviembre 2017 16:52

The first part of our week-long religion and spirituality series examines the crises of faith among some young people in strict religions.

‘I told myself that being gay was a test, that out of everyone Allah had chosen me for this test,’ says Aabad*, who was brought up as Sunni Muslim in Morocco, and then in France after his family emigrated. He realised he was gay at the age of eight, and knew a tough road lay ahead. Being openly gay was not an option. Aabad’s attraction to the same sex started a spiral of depression, isolation and a crisis of faith, leading to one suicide attempt in his late teenage years. ‘I started to understand that all my praying amounted to nothing. I gradually lost my faith. Not a soul knows I am gay, because my family and friends say gay people should be cured, imprisoned or killed. I’m lonely; I have nobody to talk to.’

Aabad’s struggle to reconcile his previous faith with his sexuality speaks to a bigger question about conservative religion’s compatibility with younger generations. Social movements such as LGBTQ activism and feminism can now reach nearly every crevice of the world through the internet and social media. In Aabad’s case, coming to terms with his homosexuality turned him away from fundamental Islam because its teachings ‘demonised’ his identity. ‘I have a lot of friends but everyone is homophobic,’ he explains, ‘I see straight people kissing casually and I feel so envious of the simple thing they get to do. I had to go to medical school to buy me time so no one would get suspicious that I haven’t married yet. Some people know I am atheist, but they think it’s a phase. Nobody wants to believe ex-Muslims actually exist.’

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The subject of apostasy - or abandonment of religion - is gaining more visibility in the internet age. Simply scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and Reddit throws up dozens of pages dedicated to ex-believers. Ismat*, a 20-year-old atheist from a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim family in Indonesia, co-runs a public Facebook page called Ex Muslim Atheist, which has nearly 10,000 followers. Ismat says the persecution of identifying as ex-Muslim has led him to live out a kind of double life: his public life as a pretending devotee to Islam, and his online life as an ex-Muslim campaigner. ‘I have to hide my atheism because I will either be shunned by my family, be sent to an Islamic school, or worst-case scenario be put in prison,’ he says, ‘You have to make a hard choice: be true to who you are and lose everything, or stay in the faith and live a lie.’

Ismat’s predicament is commonly seen among atheists in strictly religious communities. Questioning the faith and values of your family and friends often comes at a high price. But Ismat’s involvement with ex-Muslim forums and communities on social media has been paramount to his self-acceptance as a young atheist. ‘I was really low and and talking to people online who know what I am going through and understand my struggle has given me hope. There are actually a lot of people who feel the same. I thought I was the only one.’ Ismat has made the tough decision of buying a one-way ticket to Germany, the first time he will ever leave Indonesia, and knowing that he will probably never see or speak to his family or friends again. ‘I love my family and would like to keep contact but I don’t think it’s possible,’ he says, ‘I have to choose freedom.’

Although there is a threat of physical violence, and in rare cases even death, when choosing a path of apostasy, arguably the biggest risk is the loneliness and isolation from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that cause so many young people questioning their faith to keep quiet. This is why Imtiaz Shams, of Bangladeshi background but raised in Saudi Arabia and then London, co-founded the non-profit organisation, Faith to Faithless. Also hailing from a conservative Islamic background, Imtiaz has built up a network of formerly religious people from different faiths across the world since deciding to ‘come out’ as atheist. He is almost a minor celebrity on the r/ExMuslims subreddit and has set up secret groups for ex-believers globally. ‘It’s like Fight Club,’ he quips.

A young boy praying with his family

The subject of apostasy is usually shied away from in ‘liberal’ media coverage because of the potential to offend. In Western countries, where different faiths make up a minority of the population, raising the issue of young people moving away from strict religion, and the condemnation they face, runs the risk of further marginalising a group already at risk of victimisation. But what about the minority within a minority? The people who are subjected to shame, fear and discrimination for choosing a life of apostasy. What Imtiaz says is common across all religions is that losing close-knit community and support networks means people can become homeless, depressed, suicidal and engage in risky behaviour. ‘These issues are human rights issues,’ he says, ‘Religion can make good people do nasty things to their family.’

Terri O’Sullivan, an ex-Jehovah's Witness from Warwickshire, UK, has worked closely with Faith to Faithless since it started two years ago, and she co-runs an influential group, xJw Friends, for people who have likewise left. Shortly after turning 21, and with the desire to live a ‘normal’ life where she could go out, have a boyfriend, and enjoy the the ‘outside world’, Terri told her family that she was leaving the Jehovah's Witness denomination. Her mother kicked her out of the house. She became homeless and had to resort to sleeping on strangers’ sofas. ‘There is not enough support out there for people leaving religion,’ Terri says, ‘There are thousands of people who need help. Being part of such high control faiths and then leaving it behind can be harrowing.’

There has been much debate about how regulatory religions have pushed individuals to the extremes, but there is little room for discussion about how to repatriate those who flee into mainstream society. The apostate’s journey appears to be of little concern to governments, schools and state institutions. No one knows the numbers of people involved, few understand the psychological difficulties that apostates face, or the social pressures they must resist. For Terri, navigating the paranoia, hostility and subsequent shunning was the price she had to pay for a life free of religious control. She is now helping others who are climbing that uphill battle, too.

A Hasidic Jewish girl studying

And while it may be somewhat easier to abandon religion in a largely secular country like the UK, the level of control and protection of doctrinal customs in such areas is often extremely high. When Chavie Weisberger left her Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, five years ago, she was faced with a push-and-pull about how to raise her three young children. After coming out as gay to her ex-husband of seven years, and the breakdown of their arranged marriage, Chavie temporarily lost custody of her kids. The court ruling was overturned, but only on the grounds that her children still attend Hasidic school, live in a Kosher home and practice full religious observance with their father. ‘My children’s experience is very particular,’ Chavie says, ‘It’s an experiment for everyone; they are navigating two extremely different cultures.’

Chavie cites progressive social ideals as an important facet in her decision to leave. ‘I am anti-homophobia, I am anti-arranged marriage, I am anti-racism, and against the bad education and limited options,’ she explains, ‘However, I am not anti or against those people living that life. People are deprived of choice, but I respect them.’ And this is a very important point to make. Respect for religious beliefs and communities is imperative. Anti-semitism, islamophobia, and smear campaigns against peaceful communities must be stamped out. We must learn and evolve to understand each other. But, currently, the hushed discourse on apostasy harms those who choose to leave religion behind. ‘It was a life time of questioning and searching,’ Chavie says. ‘And in the end we must have self respect for our best life.’

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed