Surprisingly, prominent atheism gadfly Richard Dawkins is apparently big in Saudi Arabia.
Three million digital copies of Dawkins’ best-selling “bible of atheism,” The God Delusion, have been downloaded in the kingdom, “one of twelve Muslim-majority states where the statute books prescribe the death penalty for apostacy,” according to an article in the new February/March edition of Free Inquiry, a periodical of the secular Center for Inquiry organization.
(This embedded video below gives a good modern overview of pressures against atheism in the Islamic world.)
Also surprising is that it appears Saudis are not so different from Americans in terms of faith. The article noted that a 2012 poll by WIN/Gallup International found only 5 percent of Saudi citizens described themselves as “convinced atheist” (the same as in the U.S. but well below the worldwide average of 13 percent), while 19 percent identified as “nonreligious” (also close to the approximately 25 percent of Americans apathetic about religion).
The phenomenon tracks a quiet but continuing trend. A 2014 Salon article (“Atheism explodes in Saudi Arabia, despite state-enforced ban”) reported that anecdotal evidence persistently indicated then that “a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists.”
“But the greater willingness to privately admit to being atheist reflects a general disillusionment with religion and what one Saudi called ‘a growing notion’ that religion is being misused by authorities to control the population,” the Salon article explained. “This disillusionment is seen in a number of ways, ranging from ignoring clerical pronouncements to challenging and even mocking religious leaders on social media.”
It also seems to be a reflection of a similar paradigm change that occurred much earlier in America and the West, where atheism gradually lost its “taboo” stigma and people started feeling freer to express what they really thought. American atheists are sharply aware that many fellow citizens are equally dismissive of supernatural religious ideology but choose to hide it, for fear of discrimination in a society that is more wary of atheists than Muslims (or, for goodness sakes, than politicians).
But the urge to hide one’s atheism is presumably much, much more intense in Saudi Arabia, where unbelief and apostacy can literally cost you your head.
I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for all of the 2000s, and I also saw signs of atheism and religious doubt, although, like in the United States, the vast majority of citizens appear to give unquestioning fealty to the dominant religion’s doctrines and the rigid social compulsions that have long stemmed from it (e.g., especially public piety and cloistered modesty for women).
I remember once being invited by Saudi co-workers to a sunset “breaking of the fast” gathering during the holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful forego all food and drink during daylight hours. At this event, while congregants lined up and performed ritual prayers before formally breaking the day’s fast, I noticed one fellow didn’t participate, sitting in an easy chair off to the side. That was odd. I wondered if he was a non-believing Muslim or, more interestingly, that his friends and colleagues in attendance acted tolerant of that.So, it could be that even in the uber-faithful Muslim world, citizens are subject to epiphanies of reason, as people the world over become more educated (young Saudis are highly educated) and aware of the science and rationality that constantly and compellingly undermine supernatural concepts.
Which is not to say it’s game over.
“While discussion of atheism has become more visible [in Saudi Arabia] in recent years, those involved predominately remain under a cloak of anonymity,” the Free Inquiry article notes. “A minority are risking their freedom to raise awareness of secular and atheist causes through websites, videos, and social media.”
Keep in mind one prominent court case in which a Saudi man was sentenced to death for tearing a copy of the holy Qur’an to shreds and pounding it with his shoe, all in an online video — no matter that his lawyer claimed he was mentally ill, according to Free Inquiry.
Therefore, it’s not like it’s suddenly OK, for example, for Saudi media to start publishing satirical illustrations of Muhammad, Islam’s beloved prophet, whose words believers believe supercede even those of Jesus and all the earlier prophets in the Judeo-Christian catechism. A similar satire in a French magazine a few years ago resulted in the murder of a number of staffers amid a fierce global protest by Muslims.
Persecution of atheists by Arab regimes throughout the Middle East show that the normally still waters of Islamic culture still run very deep, and they’re murky.
“This hounding of non-believers might seem especially strange at a time when concerns are high about those who kills in the name of religion, but Arab societies have a general aversion to nonconformity, and the regimes that rule them often promote an official version of Islam that suits their political needs,” wrote Brian Whitaker in a 2015 New Humanist article (“The Rise of Arab Atheism”). “Thus both jihadism and atheism — though very different in character — are viewed as forms of social or political deviance, with fears raised in the Arab media that those who reject God and religion will bring chaos and immorality if their ideas gain a foothold.”
That’s exactly what American evangelical Christians fear who have deep influence on the Donald Trump administration. In fact, it’s what some of the president’s top officials fear (see my earlier post, “U.S. government is increasingly promoting God. That’s a crime.”).
Maybe Saudi Arabia’s recent infatuation with Richard Dawkins is not so surprising after all.
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