You can be an atheist, but not on social media and not on your terms

Published: August 15, 2015

A protest against the killing of Bangladeshi bloggers earlier this year. PHOTO: AFP

Bangladeshi secular activists take part in a procession to protest against the killing of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti, who used the pen-name Niloy Neel, in Dhaka. PHOTO: AFP A protest against the killing of Bangladeshi bloggers earlier this year. PHOTO: AFP

Niloy Neel is the “fourth blogger” to be killed in Bangladesh in less than six months. It is now officially convenient to get by with assigning serial numbers to dead atheists, rather than making the effort of memorising their names.

In 2013, radical religious groups drew up a list of 84 atheist bloggers, and submitted it to Bangladesh’s interior ministry demanding them to be unconditionally punished. The list was widely circulated, and so far, four of them have been murdered by extremist outfits.

Those who live, do so in constant fear. The police laid bare its antipathy for them when Inspector General Shahidul Haque victim-blamed the atheists for being vocal about their religious views, thus bringing death upon themselves.

It is a circumstance prominent Shia, Ahmadi and Christian families of Pakistan may comprehend better than I do.

Regrettably, minority rights activist who regularly dole out sympathy for the aforementioned minorities (as they should), are tellingly dormant on the issue of anti-atheist bigotry prevalent across the world.

Atheists are stereotyped as angry, abusive, nihilistic, spiritually-moribund people. The word ‘godless’ itself is commonly used as an epithet. Non-religious people, or ‘nones’, are generally smeared as immoral people. It is a hypothesis that has been categorically rubbished by scientific studies, as well as by statistics measuring the social stability of countries dominated by non-religious citizens, like Sweden and New Zealand.

Yet, being an atheist is a punishable offense in 13 countries around the world, all of which happen to be Muslim-majority states. In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was famously imprisoned in 2012 for declaring himself an atheist on Facebook.

As an exercise in empathy, imagine the justified outrage of watching a Muslim man ending up in an American penitentiary on charges of,

“Calling others to embrace Islam.”

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia squarely equates disbelief in God with terrorism.

In the United States, Pew Poll indicates that atheists are nearly tied with Muslims as the most disliked religious minority in the country. Seven American states technically bar atheists from holding public office, and some 40 per cent of Americans claim they would not vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is an atheist.  George Bush Senior reportedly told an interviewer that he considers atheists,

“Neither citizens, nor patriots.”

Under these demonstrably hostile circumstances, why is it that hate crimes against atheists aren’t as seemingly common as those against other marginalised groups like Hazaras in Pakistan?

Atheists blend well in the general secular environment of a country. They are not identifiable through special headgear, unique styles of clothing or facial hair, anatomical features, places of worship, or rituals. Their distinguishability is a cherished trait, given a history marked by inquisitorial raids, and wide scale lynching or banishing of heretics in nearly all cultures.

However, do not mistake the public’s lack of opportunity to exhibit bigotry, as the absence of bigotry itself. When atheists do voluntarily come out and publicly profess their lack of belief, as the Bangladeshi bloggers did, what happens to them is not encouraging.

We convince ourselves of our ‘goodness’ through a token headshake upon news of a hate crime against minority members; as if being ‘anti-murder’ is all it takes to qualify as a decent person.

Moreover, to remain staunchly anti-murder, we demand that these minorities continue pretending to be who we want them to be. Sure, be an atheist, but don’t preach, don’t criticise, don’t scrutinise the system, and quietly get back in line like all the other ‘good atheists’ fearfully conforming to the order. Otherwise, your persecution would be on your own hands, and we would refuse to feel sorry for it.

Mainstream activists are often reluctant to stand up for atheists for the fear of being labelled ‘one of them’, which limns the intensity of prejudice out there. God knows, we wouldn’t want our name on a ‘list’ among those 84, now 80, death-marked heathens.

Whatever the cause, fellow liberals, your silence on this matter has been duly noted.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Brain Think

    Bangladesh will find a way out of it, because it has a Godless constitution. There were street protests against the murder.

    Since Pakistan does not have a Godless constitution, if it were to have happened here, I am sure there would have been a widespread mum, if not street celebrations.

    The only way for Pakistan to remain in one piece a few years from now, is to make its constitution free from religious beliefs.

    Unfortunately, the Generals of the GHQ, would never let it happen, even if the politicians wanted to. Their entire genetics is based around the concept of Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabilillah – LITERALLY.Recommend

  • wb

    Atheists are persecuted only by Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Others don’t care.

    I’m pretty sure that a lot of intellectual Pakistanis are atheists, yet they proclaim their belief in Allah and Mohammed and Quran. If they openly deny that, they’re likely to meet similar fate in Pakistan.

    All the religions which prevents people from thinking, tend to be against atheism.

    Yet, the irony is, not one single human being out of 6 billion humans on earth has ever proved conclusively that there’s a god. Recommend

  • wb

    Good blog, by the way.

    If you are an atheist, never come out about it. You live in a much more bigoted country than Bangladesh.Recommend

  • mimi sur


    Check history, religion and religious people are challenged through out history. One after another were born to challenge this religion . Did you know what happened after Charlie hebdo attack, millions queue up to condemn and they were condemning the religion the attackers were following.

    “Just absorb the critism, if you resist, stones will be thrown” . I am also an atheist and I have respect all regions on earth.Recommend

  • jiyala

    Atheists are highly intelligent and smart people. The widespread perception that they’re immoral or whatever is just false propaganda by religious folks.

    I hope Bangladeshi bloggers are spared their lives. But frankly, I don’t see any hope for atheists not getting persecuted for their beliefs (or lack thereof) in third world countries.Recommend

  • Rizwan Ali Khan

    Godless or Godful constitution doesn’t matter. It’s the mindset that is a killer be it in BD, PK or anywhere else. Kind of hate BD is nurturing among its youth will return to it.

    BTW, there are so many fools living around the world to see Pakistan torn apart into pieces.Recommend

  • Agnostic

    The murders merit highest condemnation. But what must atheists in religious states/cultures do…

    “Sure, be an atheist, but don’t preach, don’t criticise, don’t scrutinise the system, and quietly get back in line like all the other ‘good atheists’ fearfully conforming to the order.”

    Is atheism a religion that requires preaching? on the contrary it is the absence of faith and supposedly based on logical deductions. In which case, atheists should one day outnumber believers based on the progress of human species and the evolution of intellect.

    Anti-theists on the other hand lack conviction in their supposedly logical ‘atheistic’ deduction and feel the necessity to propagate their ‘lack of faith’ forming a cult like entity.

    If atheism is indeed the absence of faith, than it is not an identity worthy of affiliation. Its akin to being stateless in an era of nation states, albeit by choice. Perhaps, what is needed is an ‘atheistan’ which might undermine the notion that ‘atheism is simply an absence of faith’ and reinforce the idea that it is a proactive movement, with identifiable leaders and spokes persons, that seeks to dominate the theological landscape.Recommend

  • prmcdon

    “Sure, these murders and all the other religiously inspired atrocities in the world merit the highest condemnation. However, instead I will take the opportunity to be a smug, fence-sitting pseudo-intellectual, and attempt to show how silly those who hate religious intolerance are being when they have the audacity to make their views known”…

    Atheism does not require preaching, but apparently the idea of stopping (often violent) hate and bigotry (esp. outside of the western world) against those who have an opinion based on evidence DOES require promotion!

    Also, it is not illogical to take a unified stance against evil. And “what is needed” is a world where people think logically about their decisions; this cannot be done with religions oppressing their adherents (along with many non-adherents) and indoctrinating children into untrue barbaric bronze aged mythologies!Recommend

  • Parvez

    When 13 Muslim countries prescribe punishment for being an atheist… follows that there must be a religious base for this. Would some knowledgeable person confirm if this is so….or is this misuse of religious text to further a political agenda. I confess my ignorance and would like a simple unambiguous answer, if possible.Recommend

  • utg001

    you really believe Pakistan has a constitution of Islam? Please, you have no idea about an Islamic country. Muslims lived in peace and harmony with non-Muslims after hijrah. The rightful Muslim way provides equal rights to all the religions and tolerance and freedom of faith. It is indeed our own small mindedness that we have defined Islam to be single, close minded mentality.
    As far as the generals are concerned, Iman “faith/belief” They want to fight on principals of Islam, Taqwa “fear of God” those that don’t fear God do things like corruption, Jihad fi Sabilillah “for the sake of Allah” now it is very common and easy to befit this to killing of non muslims, but really it means that if an enemy takes arms against us, they are forbidden to leave the battle, whats wrong here? I would expect them to fight to their last breath and they have.
    Now Principals of Islam, are really to attack the one who has taken arms against you, prepare your arms to stay always ready. and even while attacking enemy, it is forbidden to kill or attack an unarmed or harmless person, animal even crops.
    Islam is not at blame here my friend, you, me, we all are who have given western definitions to the core parts of the religion.Recommend

  • utg001

    Muslims we perfectly happy living among Christians in Arab, even non Muslims lived among them. There are no tales of hangings of non muslims because they refused to believe them. Muslims lived peacefully with hindus in Mughal era, that is until EAC divided them. Fact of the matter is, we believe what we are told, Why don’t you read the scripts that say forceful conversion is haram, haven’t you heard the tales of Muslims being convicted for crimes against non muslims in the Caliphate? Blaming Islam won’t fix it, If these 13 countries lay out laws that burka is prohibited does that mean this is Islam? Not at all. Definitions and the core of religion differ, because the religion is just a set of beliefs and a way of life, now we have successfully redefined the cores of Islam to our liking just to keep the blame away from us.
    One can only expect people like those mentioned in the article above (the attackers) to receive punishment in the end, but so far, the govt. won’t do much either because they are all people of similar beliefs.Recommend

  • Think!

    I am not a Muslim and I am not an expert, but a search will show a few verses, for instance take into consideration
    Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:88

    You are absolutely correct that there are 13 countries (all Muslim) who have made atheism a crime. Further OIC nations are trying to push for atheist vies as racist (wow!).

    Hope this helps.Recommend

  • Wayne Robert Smith

    The most religious countries are the poorest and most backward. They have no future. Recommend

  • Brain Think

    The topic here is about atheism, not about the the rights of the people from other religions – which has its other separate dimensions.

    The punishment for apostasy (leaving Islam) is death. This means, that an atheist is on an automatic death row by the state, if it follows, say an Islamic constitution.

    If a state removes the religious beliefs from its constitution, at least, reprimanding the religious fanatics, becomes legally mandatory for the bureaucracy.

    Apostasy is a CRIMINAL act in the Pakistani constitution. Any person who is a declared atheist in Pakistan, is an automatic enemy of the state.Recommend

  • Ali

    Shia, Ahmdai and Christians are not Atheists !Recommend

  • Unrepentant Atheist

    Does it matter? In the eyes of Islam, anyone that isn’t Islam might as well be.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    It’s great that you admire all religions, but conformism to the religious sociopolitical order should not be a mandatory condition for basic civil rights and security for atheists.

    “I’m ambivalent about economic theories, and respect all of them. But if you strongly criticize capitalism, then sorry to say, you’re asking to get harassed or killed.”

    Being a “good atheist”, as you are, gets you universal approval. This is about atheists with views that differ from the society’s, which get responded to by machetes and bullets.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Here the subject is atheism and Islam……..sorry but your comment was confusing…….but thanks anyway.Recommend

  • strawman

    “I am going to ignore what you said, pretend I read what I wanted to read and than respond to that”…

    … and therein lies the absurdity of discussing with one professing to be logical but willfully ignorant of basic fallacies.Recommend

  • Laïque

    “This is about atheists with views that differ from the society’s, which get responded to by machetes and bullets.”

    Holding atheist views is usually not the issue, preaching them is. Proselytization is an integral part of religions, while atheism is based on logical deductions. But if atheists begin to proselytize, form groups and follow leaders… well than… if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, than its a duck. And while I appreciate an occasional ‘foie de gras’ unlicensed duck hunts are still wrong.Recommend

  • Saj

    Not quite true.
    China is the most irreligious country followed by Japan, Sweden, Czech Republic and Netherlands and none of them feature in the top ten richest countries, though Sweden, Japan and Netherlands are close.

    Where as the top ten richest countries in the world ( includes deeply religious states like Qatar, Brunei and UAE as well as mostly religious states like US and Norway.

    Logical conclusion: Religion and Wealth are not correlated. Atheism does not lead to riches.Recommend

  • Critical

    All the deeply religious states you have stated above are sitting on a reservior of Oil…When the oil exhausts,they would go back riding camelsRecommend

  • Mikael Ensrud

    As a norwegian I can say that Norway is absolutely NOT mostly religious.

    A large population is part of the church yes, but that is partially because a lot of people are automatically registered at the church when they are born (or at least were back when we had a state religion, which we don’t anymore) as well as fraud on the side of the catholic church, falsely inflating the numbers by registering people without their conscent.

    Not to mention that more and more people are leaving the church every year.

    Most of Norway is secular. And the majority of those that are religious (not counting muslims) are people around the age of 50+.

    As far as the US goes, I don’t really see how you could call it “rich” considering the absolutely monstrous amount of debt it has…
    Besides, he wasn’t only talking about money. He was also talking about social development, in which case the most secular countries are ABSOLUTELY on the forefront in comparison to religious countries.Recommend

  • abhi

    wow! Qatar and UAE are rich because they have oil not because of the religion. US is not a religious country, they have secular constitution and secular institutions and athesim is on the rise.Recommend

  • abhi

    Glad that you wrote it. Most of the guardians of seclurasim in this forum chose to ignore the subject.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    I didn’t mean literal ‘preaching’, but what theists consider atheists do when they enthusiastically debate them.

    Many of us would rather have atheists sit by quietly while we muse out loud how pathetic, purposeless, and indeed, immoral their lives are without the solace and guidance of religion.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    That’s a huge judgement on a large group of people; like when they accuse feminists of being “cultists”, and simultaneously, lacking “conviction” in their own ideals.

    If they lacked conviction, they’d more likely be somewhere on the mid-fence of agnosticism – not saying that’s wrong either. Doubt is humble.

    The argument here is that anti-theistic atheists are coerced into “laying low”, and not standing up for their principles. If they believe that organized religion is detrimental to human progress (whether that’s true is debatable), they are not supposed to express those ideas, lest they become ‘worthy’ of persecution and lose sympathy of the “moderate theists” and agnostics.Recommend

  • blue

    These countries may not be the richest,but these countries have some of the best social indicators.Recommend

  • red

    In which universe does China have the best social indicators?Recommend

  • Saj

    “Qatar and UAE are rich because they have oil not because of the religion.”

    I never said ‘religion leads to riches’. On the contrary, i stated that ‘Religion and Wealth are not correlated’.

    The common denominator in richest states including Qatar, UAE, Singapore, Luxembourg is the small size and population of the state. Not religion/atheism or oil.Recommend

  • Imad Uddin

    As a muslim I guess… I can not be an athiest without being consciously a traitor to the morals Prophet Muhammad PBUH and his companions sacrificed everything for…

    If there was morally smooth way, I would have loved to be one!

    Well..that’s my case

    I don’t know if others do it with genuine conviction or they make conscious effort to be considerably impermeable to truth and feelings of moral responsibility.

    Allah alone knows what is inside the hearts, we cant give any verdict.Recommend

  • prmcdon

    Hi Strawman (good name, btw; it suits you…),

    If you had read all of Faraz’ story, along with Agnostic’s and my comments, you would have discovered that:

    a) Agnostic opened by dismissing the article and proceeding to bash atheists/anti-theists (as a group) by quote mining Faraz.
    b) I actually addressed the comments that Agnostic made.
    c) You fell in to the trap that you thought you had caught me in (i.e. ignoring what the substance of my comment, and finding something easier to argue against: my bluntness and “lack” of philosophical training).
    d) You committed the fallacy fallacy, on top of this.
    e) I did not profess to be 100% logical; I admit to being human.
    f) If you’d rather be petty and attack the aesthetics of my comment, rather than be angry at those who willfully murder freethinkers and minorities, then you are really not a decent person. In fact people like you are worse than the Nazis!
    g) There’s another fallacy for you to lock your teeth on and feel all superior to those who care about everyone having the freedom to think on their own…Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    That’s the sort of sanctimoniousness I was addressing in the blog.

    The idea that religious people, particularly Muslims, have All Rights Reserved to the moral landscape, and the rest are simply “impermeable to truth” and “feelings of moral responsibility”. That sense of self-righteousness is unhelpful.

    In my life, I’ve seen people who have never stepped inside a house of worship, but are wonderful human beings. And I’ve seen people who are devout, yet insufferably arrogant and hateful.

    Your truth is your own; others may have a different perspective.Recommend

  • Wiener3

    How can you be a traitor to something you dont believe in? Atheism is as moral as religion. Even more – because you have to think about your moral….Recommend

  • Wiener3

    But what’s the duck there? Atheist may feel that the society they live in is dominated too much by religion and speak out against it. But speaking out against religion doesn’t make you religious. Its a non sequitur.Recommend

  • siesmann

    The more one is religious,the more violent he/she is.In fact even otherwise non-religious people take on the garb of religion when they have to go violent.Recommend

  • Kitsune Inari

    The inverse relation is not exactly between religion vs money, but rather between religion vs social development, quality of life and overall happiness. Pretty much all highly-religious countries (including the USA, to an exent) are foul hellholes where nobody of sane mind would want to live.Recommend

  • Kitsune Inari

    I’d say pretty much any use of religion is, strictly speaking, misuse of religion, if only because religion itself is inherently wrong.Recommend

  • utg001

    I don’t know why you keep calling them atheists as different from being a non muslim. For a muslim, there are only two powers, Muslim and Non MuslimRecommend

  • utg001

    right, and what I am saying is that this is the fault of Pakistan for making such an unIslamic law. Atheism or not, for a Muslim, there only are two religions, Muslim and Non Muslims.Recommend

  • abhi

    Small correction here common denominator between qatar, UAE and Saudi arebia is oil. Common denominator between Singapore, Luxembourg, Hongkong is educated population with good government policies.
    You will rarely find a theocratic country being also a rich country unless they have some valuable natural resource like oil. On the other hand you will find many secular countries being also rich even if they don’t have many natural resources.Recommend

  • Aleister Gates

    Um…you are wrong, religion and poverty ARE correlated. China is not “the most” irreligious. They simply have a strong separation of church and state. According to Gallup, Denmark is actually more irreligious than China. Sweden is more irreligious than China. And, I might add..though the richest countries in the world are not always the most irreligious, the poorest countries in the world ARE the most religious..and often the most primitive, religiously speaking.

  • Aleister Gates

    I might also add, he did not say that the richest countries in the world are the most irreligious.. He said..”The most religious countries are the poorest and most backward.” and that is an undeniable fact.

  • Aleister Gates

    And only the tiny few sit on the oil..the rest live in povertyRecommend

  • Aleister Gates

    Also, within the richest countries that are religious, the religiosity stems from the poorest sections of those countries. Again, poverty is linked to religiosity.

  • A.kiyani

    what an orthodox.. you are an atheist and respect all religions. You surely don’t know, what atheism is, then. Dont insult atheists.Recommend

  • Bill

    Let us put all the radical Imams on a list and circulate it with a nice bounty. Seems like turnaround is fair play.Recommend

  • Hameedullah

    “For a muslim, there are only two powers, Muslim and Non Muslim” A muslim that thinks like that is certainly living in denial of reality because world is not divided in muslim and non muslim denominations. Non muslim is a huge generalization. While it is a collective term it in no way means that christains, jews, hindus, atheists, agnosts are same. Even in islam its not same, because you should know that islam treats christains and jews very different from hindus, atheists and agnostics etc.Recommend

  • David Tiffany

    “You can be an atheist, but not on social media and not on your terms”
    And not before God:

  • Saj

    “You will rarely find a theocratic country being also a rich country unless they have some valuable natural resource like oil. ”

    Ever looked at the coffers of the Vatican?Recommend

  • abhi

    Vetican is not a country in this sense. It gets donation from all over world you willl not find any christian country getting this kind of donations.Recommend

  • Perhaps

    BD is nurturing hatred? Well, before pointing fingers at others please look at yourself. Aren’t PK nurturing hate for India? Study has found that Pakistan’s text books are full of hatred towards Hindus and has portraited them as enemies…Recommend

  • Abdul moiz

    Step inside ..