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Is it possible to be a Muslim atheist?

It’s possible to be a Christian atheist, a Jewish atheist, a Buddhist atheist—in the sense of identifying with a religious tradition while disagreeing with its supernatural doctrines.

It’s especially possible to be a Jewish atheist. My wife is Jewish, and I’m a physicist, both which mean I get to hang around secular Jews a lot. More than half of the Jews of my acquaintance have no supernatural beliefs. Now, that is certainly not a representative sample, but nontheistic Jews are still common enough to become almost a stereotype.

Socially and doctrinally, Islam is pretty close to Judaism. The class of religious scholars (the de facto clergy) among Muslims, for example, are much like rabbis, rather than priests or ministers. But in the Islamic case, it’s very hard to speak of nontheistic Muslims. I know lots of secular Muslims, lots of nonobservant Muslims. But among those who lack interest in God or actively disbelieve in a God, a very small number to begin with, I have a hard time thinking of any who would also identify themselves as Muslim. Maybe one or two, and I haven’t actually asked. Nonbelief tends to push Muslims away from their identification with Muslim culture and tradition as well, perhaps.

I’m not sure if this is significant, but I think it’s mildly interesting anyway. At any rate, I’d be curious to know if my observation is accurate, or if it’s just my unrepresentative experience so far.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    Actually, Buddhism doesn’t require a belief in a supreme being, which is why 40% of Buddhists are also atheists.

    As for Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc., I think it is possible to be culturally religious without actually believing in the tenants of said religion. For one thing, in certain countries, openly disavowing religion can be deadly. For another, to some groups, traditional religious identity is hugely important.

    My mother is Catholic- culturally. Talk to her and you realize she’s an atheist. However, she grew up in a traditional Italian home (she didn’t speak English until kindergarten, and she grew up in the US), and will never remove Catholicism from her blood.

    Jews are more so with that. After all, with what 6, 10 million Jews dead in the Holocaust, it must seem very important to maintain Judaism as a tradition, even if you don’t believe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02804655739574694901 Andrew Shields

    When I’m feeling less anti-religious, I call myself a “secular Christian.”

    When I get angry, I call myself a “militant Darwinist.”

    (And I love PF’s slip: “the tenants of said religion.” Those who live in the religion versus those who do not.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05831545703736269776 David

    @ personalfailure: I’d be interested in where you found “40% of Buddhists ar also atheists … I’d never heard that breakdown.

    Re: article: Jews identify not only as a religion, but ethnically as well. From the Wikipedia: “Judaism shares some of the characteristics of a nation, an ethnicity, a religion, and a culture, making the definition of who is a Jew vary slightly depending on whether a religious or national approach to identity is used.[25] Generally, in modern secular usage, Jews include three groups: people who were born to a Jewish family regardless of whether or not they follow the religion, those who have some Jewish ancestral background or lineage (sometimes including those who do not have strictly matrilineal descent), and people without any Jewish ancestral background or lineage who have formally converted to Judaism and therefore are followers of the religion.”

    To the degree any other ethnically identified group distinguishes itself from its indigenous religion … to that degree you will see the presence of atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    I’m not sure how it is possible to be a Christian atheist. I don’t think one can be Christian without believing in at least one god.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09891160904748206385 AYDIN ÖRSTAN

    “Nonbelief tends to push Muslims away from their identification with Muslim culture and tradition as well”

    That’s true because “Muslim culture” is more or less identical with Arabic culture. So when a Turkish Moslem/Muslim becomes an atheist, he/she is also inclined to move away from the Moslem/Arabic culture. However, there should be atheist Moslems in Arabic countries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Its not possible to be Jewish or Christian in a religious sense and be an atheist. The only reason that some people who are atheist feel comfortable calling themselves Jewish and Christian is that there are numerous Jewish and Christian religionists who have a relatively relaxed, liberal, tolerant, modern interpretation of their religion. This makes it possible for atheists and non-religionists to observe customs associated with their parents religion without experiencing negative reactions from religionists and without feeling that they are siding with their enemies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11444305270383816724 El Profe

    @explicit atheist

    Judaism, contrary to Catholicism or Christianity, has an important secular/non-religious content.
    I am culturally Jewish. That is, I have a Jewish heritage that translates into culture, literature, language (Yiddish) and a set of secular beliefs (although whether they are specifically Jewish rather than just “secular humanist” is up to discussion). I am also an atheist, and there is no contradiction there.
    Also, as an interesting anecdote, my grandfather went to the synagogue to pray on a daily basis, but he did not believe in God. He did it because he thought Judaism had to survive. Shoah survivor’s trauma/guilt, I guess.

    I think there could well be atheist Muslims in the future. The system of belief might well develop into a cultural secular Islam, eventually. Not yet, though. Islam as a social phenomenon has not gone through what Judaism did.
    Please recall the fact that Judaism was a group of people without citizenship or political dominion for centuries. Islam never went through that transformative experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12961174250310633007 homosapien

    Yes this is quite possible.As i think i…………..
    But could not declare because of “Death Penalty”.
    But one day whole world including muslims will realize the truth and the greatest lie in the history of mankind “GOD” will be busted.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14024271105542467132 L

    The label Christian atheist means someone who denies Jesus' divinity and does not believe in any God. Yet, someone who finds his teachings wise and good, and so follows them.

    Theoretically, I suppose the same could be true for Muslims. You could not believe in Allah, or that the Qur'an was sent by an angel. But the same time you could follow all the strictures of the Qur'an. No pork, bow toward Mecca, beat your wife, the whole nine.

    The difficulty, I presume, would lie in the suras that say not to associate with unbelievers.

    The suras about striking off the heads of the unbelievers would be a tough gig to follow to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00821421615510738174 Steve

    interesting stuff

    i am a person who is attracted to islamic culture: food, music, art

    and an atheist

    have i found my "label"

    [probably not]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03838189825559906645 A Khan

    I am atheist now and used to be a Muslim. But I don't announce it to my family or friends that I am atheist just becasue that will create rifts and unncessary tensions. But since I am at peace with who I am so I don't really think that I will achieve any thing with confronatation as you guys know Muslims are really sensitive about their religion and I do believe it's because Muslim societies have not gone throuh "Enlightenment" as of yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07282557858890828274 AtheistWitch

    I'm an Atheist Witch. :-) Come look at my blog. (atheistwitch.blogspot.com).

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