Why Being An Outspoken Atheist Is The Hardest Work I’ve Ever Done

Why Being An Outspoken Atheist Is The Hardest Work I’ve Ever Done July 18, 2019

I used to have to clean puke out of aeroplane lavatory sinks. It always struck me as odd that someone would forgo the sick bag AND the toilet for the sink, but it happened. Way more than I care to talk about. I worked in an addiction recovery home, too, where we lost people we cared about to relapses. I worked in a grocery store meat department, cleaning the bone dust out of the nooks and crannies of all the machinery with bleach. I even had to dress as a clown and stand on a city street corner in February, wearing a sandwich board that advertised a dozen roses. I recall one afternoon having a snowball hit the back of my head and hearing someone yell from a car driving by, “you’re ugly!”. I promptly yelled back, “at least I have to dress up to be!” but that’s totally irrelevant.

The point is, I had some tough jobs.

Nothing, though, compares to this blog and running the Godless Mom social spaces.

I know, this might sound strange to you. How is hard to share memes that make us all giggle every day? How is it hard to write posts about not believing in something? Honestly, I went into it thinking it would be fun and easy, too.

Don’t get me wrong, it is fun. It is rewarding, and I get a ton of enjoyment from it. It’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and there is no exaggeration in that statement.

The thing that makes it hard is the constant flow of messages, emails, tweets and comments from ex-Muslims who fear for their lives. It is especially hard when someone’s messages suddenly go quiet.

To illustrate this, an excerpt from the book I am writing (which you can help with here):

No one ever warned me I could be murdered. When I started writing as a godless parent on the internet, no one ever told me people die for it. I certainly never expected to wake up one morning to the news that someone was hacked to death in the streets with a machete for doing what I do. That’s what happened, though, on February 25th, 2015, the news reported that popular humanist blogger Avijit Roy had been murdered in cold blood in the streets of Bangladesh in front of his wife.

Known for his fearless defence of free speech, Roy was a Bangladeshi blogger who lived in the United States of America. He wrote about all the same things I write about. Avijit was deeply critical of religion but defended everyone’s right to religious belief. He spoke up about equality for women and justice for the LGBTQ community. He was heavily committed to humanist values and passionately rallied for the freedoms and fundamental rights of all.

On September 24th, 2014, Avijit wrote:

A well-known extremist by the name of Farabi Shafiur Rahman openly issued death threats to me through his various Facebook statuses. In one of his widely-circulated statuses, Farabi wrote, “Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be murdered when he comes back.”

Five months later, Roy attended a busy book fair in Bangladesh and was murdered on his way back to his hotel.

When news reached my neck of the woods, it rocked my world.

I didn’t grow up with a religion. I didn’t even fully understand what religion was until I’d been on my first date. I didn’t quite get what a church was, or what a god was. I had a basic understanding of the concepts of Heaven and Hell but found them both ridiculous.

At home, my parents were critical of religion. My father was without faith, and his father before him was without religion. If you keep going back, you’ll see I come from a long line of outspoken activists who were openly critical of worship despite the dangers that posed to them. It goes all the way back to Anne Hutchinson, who, I have been told, is one of my direct ancestors. She was a notable historical figure who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 for criticizing the way they observed their religious beliefs. Anne went on to help found the state of Rhode Island and to practice her religion in a way she saw fit. I don’t know if my relation to her is just Heard family lore or based in actual fact, but I can tell you it fits. My home life growing up was about as solidly secular as life could be without Captain Picard manning the bridge.

The problem was, though, that I was growing up in a much broader and more religious context. I was in a bubble, if you will, naive to the power religion had in the world outside of my tiny little neighbourhood in Steveston, BC. At home and at school and with friends, religion was simply a non-thing. No one I knew prayed. None of my friends attended church regularly and Sunday mornings were reserved for football, sleeping in and my dad’s delicious crepes.

I grew up like this, oblivious to the fact that there were parts of the world where this life could have you killed.

It wasn’t until a few months into writing the Godless Mom blog, when I was thirty-seven, that it really dawned on me that people were dying in other parts of the world for not believing in god.

Sure, I’d grown up to understand that religion held a great deal of power in our world. Absolutely, I eventually realized that some religions had factions that were particularly violent and controlling when it came to enforcing their traditions. It just never dawned on me that people actually die for the sole reason that they lack a belief in a deity.

In fact, it didn’t really hit me until one Sunday night in the summer of 2014 when one of my blog readers messaged me on Twitter. I was getting ready to go to bed when I got the notification. He was living deep in the Boko Haram territory of Nigeria and told me he’d let his father know he no longer believed in god. His father’s response was to beat him, drug him and have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. It was here where his mother slipped him a phone to contact the outside world.

This was the opening of the proverbial flood gates. What followed was four years of emails, private messages, texts and tweets from people who were in life-threatening danger desperate for my help. There was the lesbian couple in Saudi Arabia who emailed, pleading with me to help them get to America because as gay atheists, their family had two reasons to have them killed. There was the atheist man in Pakistan who was in hiding after receiving death threats. There was the aspiring writer in Bangladesh who hadn’t written a public word yet and already had someone attempt to take his life. The list goes on and on and on. Each one of these hundreds of people in desperate fear of losing their lives, each one of them begging me for help I couldn’t offer. Each one of them settling like an anvil in the pit of my stomach and weighing down each step I take to this day.

I have unloaded on many of my fellow outspoken atheists, expressing my deep sadness that this continues five years into my blog. I tell them that I wish our number one priority in this activist community is to make the world safer for ex-Muslims. I lay awake at night thinking of the people I no longer hear from, wishing there was anything at all that I could do to help.

I have no idea what it’s like to leave any religion behind. I especially don’t know what it’s like to leave a religion that people would kill for. The closest we can come to solace is to remember that the majority of faithful Muslims don’t behave like this, which means we can change the minds of the few who do. Of course, this applies to Christianity, too, however, the overwhelming majority of notes I get from people in trouble are from ex-Muslims.

Today, a Facebook friend sent me the link to a Twitter thread started by a user named Nik. Nik asked,

What is your biggest fear as an ex-Muslim?

and some of the answers were heartbreaking.

One user said they were afraid of violence from their own family. Another user said he was scared of humiliation and being murdered by the people he lives amongst. Someone said they worry about getting disowned and abused by their own parents.

Here are some more answers:

and the conversation just goes on an on and on like this.

This thread illustrates with perfect clarity why we ought to be able to criticize any doctrine. When those of us who openly criticize religion take on Islam, we are often faced with an onslaught of accusations. We’re Islamophobic. We’re bigots. We’re racists.

The thing is, we’re standing up for the fearful people in this Twitter thread. We’re standing up for the people who write to me every week and sometimes every day, begging for help. We’re the ones who see bad ideas for what they are, and aren’t afraid to stand up and say no, you shouldn’t kill anyone for them. You shouldn’t shun, or imprison or disown people in favour of these beliefs. We’re the ones who see people who were raised in faraway places, with very different cultures and who look different from us and say, yes, they’re worth standing up for.

It is those who call us names and ridicule us for doing so who are the actual bigots. They see a heathen, a godless hellbound soul who is not worth saving and they can’t understand why we would bother standing up for them.

I stand up for them because I was fortunate to be born into a culture and a place where it is safe to be an atheist. I was lucky to have grown up in a country where being gay or bisexual wouldn’t legally earn you a death sentence.

The second hardest part of my job is standing up for Saudi Arabians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Malaysians, Bangladeshis and more and then being called a racist for it. The most challenging part of writing this blog and managing the social media around it is never hearing from these people again. It’s the radio silence that follows a message expressing their fear of being killed.

The hardest part about being an outspoken atheist is knowing beyond any doubt that some people I’ve connected with have been killed for being just like me.

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I’m writing a book addressing the many reasons believers distrust atheists. I’m around 40,000 words in! If you want to help me get it done, you can support me by donating here or becoming a patron here.

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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