Sometimes people ask, what good is atheism? To me this question is never divorced from my Muslim background and my Muslim majority country.
Looking back, it might be easy to think that my atheism is more a curse than a blessing. After all, atheism has brought me years and years of abuse and made me the target of bigotry. I became an atheist when I was 14. As soon as I was an atheist, I was harassed at school for refusing to pray. Legally speaking I have no rights and I don’t even exist. I had to endure being the victim of people’s negative stereotypes about atheism, and I have always felt like an outcast. Because I’m outspokenly critical of Islam, I have been accused of Islamophobia (that is hating my own community, hating my own family, etc) by white liberal westerners, and I have been a target of Islamophobia myself.
But I am an atheist anyway. Not only that, I’m an active atheist. I’m as openly atheist as I can be. My memories are not “pretended to pray at school and on the corpse of his beloved aunt,” they are “refused to pray at school or on the corpse of his beloved aunt.” And I have engaged religious people a lot.
The truth is that I have been a victim, but not only a victim – also a survivor, someone who fights back, a provocateur. I have been more than just “an atheist.” I have been more than someone who simply lacks belief in God.
So to me the question “what good is atheism anyway?” is also a deeply personal question, because it asks me to reflect on this most important thing of my life. It’s like asking an actor “why do you act?”
So what good atheism has done for me? This is the question I can answer. Many ex-Muslims might have no answer. They might wish they had never deconverted. And I’m sure many other atheists have many different reasons. But this is about me and atheism. And this is my answer.
I would like to quote George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984. While Iran is not as bad as the society depicted in this novel, the metaphor is potent enough for an ex-Muslim Iranian. Orwell writes:
He took a twenty-five cent piece out of his pocket. There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother. Even from the coin the eyes pursued you. On coins, on stamps, on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrappings of a cigarette packet—everywhere. Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.
An ex-Muslim may feel likewise surrounded by hostile imagery and symbolism, and likewise surrounded by watchful eyes. In this atmosphere of almost absolute repression, an ex-Muslim is bound to feel that there is indeed “no escape” and nothing “your own” but “the few cubic centimeters inside your skull”.
But as is later revealed in the novel, Orwell’s protagonist was wrong: those precious “few cubic centimeters inside your skull” are not truly yours either. Conditioning, religious upbringing, social pressure, norms of your historical era, and the limits of human cognition are all chains that bind your thinking. We might call ourselves “the freethinkers” but indeed no thought is truly and completely free. The struggle is not only with the world outside but with the person inside too – with the traumatized, angry, bitter, lonely, and ostracized person inside.
You defy not only the parents and the regime and the society by breaking the taboos and committing sins and questioning the myths, but also the pearl-clutcher inside your skull, your own conditioning, your own instincts damaged and perverted by living in a deeply conservative religious society.
So this is what good atheism has done for me: atheism has enabled me to wage a war to liberate those “the few cubic centimeters inside my skull”. It is ultimately a war destined to be lost – I will never not be the child of my time and my place, and I will never be entirely free in my thought. But it is a worthy war to wage nevertheless, for every battle won is a great victory in itself.
As I strive to think free and live free and to carve out my own path in the unforgiving terrain of life, atheism has enabled me to avoid many obstacles to freedom that although not always but often are inseparable from religion. Freedom from superstition, freedom from meaningless taboos, freedom from celestial and earthly authorities, freedom from bigotries against those who do not belong to the same tribe as mine.
Not all atheists are free from these bounds and not all religious people are bound by them, undoubtedly. But I am sure of myself that absence of religion has helped me greatly, and I am sure there are others have a similar experience.
Because of atheism I can support democracy, oppose theocracy, support the equal rights for women and LGBT+ people without having to hold sacred a book which embodies the opposite of all these values and I do not have to resolve the mental dissonance of such an intellectual contradiction.
Because of atheism I can easily accept science and not be forced to choose between my dogma and the facts on issues such as evolution or circumcision or masturbation or abortion.
Because of atheism I can laugh at Mohammad and all else that is sacred, and save my outrage for the real injustices in the world, instead of getting angry at harmless satire targeting warlords of the past.
Because of atheism I can indulge in my harmless desires and to consider the naked human body beautiful, not something to be covered in shame.
Because of atheism I can think about the great questions without a God vetoing certain areas and certain concepts. I am not aware of all my unconscious biases and failings of critical thinking, but at least religious ones are not among them.
Atheism is freedom. Atheism does not equal critical thinking, or tolerance, or a truly liberated mind. But atheism is an opportunity, an option, a potential blank slate. To me atheism means that on this Saganian speck of dust we inhabit I find my own destination and I walk my own road and all my accomplishments and all my failures are ultimately my own, no idol is my god and no lord is my shepherd.
And this is something I relish, something that makes all those traumas and abuses worth it.