ALEXANDRIA, Va. â Women talked about âcoming out,â being open with their families, leaving âthe closetâ at a conference here this month. But the topic was not sexuality. Instead, the women, attending the thirdÂ Women in Secularism conference were talking about beingÂ atheists. Some grew up Catholic, some Jewish, some Protestant â but nearly all described journeys of acknowledging atheism first to themselves, then to loved ones. Going public was a last, often painful, step.
Anyone leaving a close-knit belief-based community risks parental disappointment, rejection by friends and relatives, and charges of self-loathing. The process can be especially difficult and isolating for women who have grown up Muslim, who are sometimes accused of trying to assimilate into a Western culture that despises them.
âIt was incredibly painful,â Heina Dadabhoy, 26, said during a discussion called âWomen Leaving Religion,â which also featured three former Christians and one formerly observant Jew, the novelistÂ Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. âMy entire life, my identity, was being a good Muslim woman.â
Ms. Dadabhoy, a web developer who lives in Orange County, Calif., and who often gives talks about leaving Islam, said the hardest part of the process was opening up to her family.
âThe sense they got was where I was turning my back on them,â Ms. Dadabhoy said. Her parents accused her of thinking that she was better than her grandparents and other ancestors. âYou think what you have is better than what we have? You think youâre like those white people,â Ms. Dadabhoy recalled them saying.
There are few role models for former Muslims, and although the religionâs history contains some notable skeptics, very few of them are women. Today, Muslim feminists likeÂ Irshad ManjiÂ andÂ Amina WadudÂ advocate more liberal attitudes toward women in Islam, but neither has left the faith. And many atheists resist identifying withÂ Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American (by way of the Netherlands) whose vehement criticism of Islam is seen, even by many other atheists, as harsh.
One group that seeks to bridge that gap isÂ Ex-Muslims of North America, which had an information table in the exhibition hall. Members of the group, founded last year in Washington and Toronto, recognize that their efforts might seem radical to some, and take precautions when admitting new members. Those interested in joining are interviewed in person before they are told where the next meeting will be held. The group has grown quickly to about a dozen chapters, in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco.
One of the groupâs founders who was at the conference, Sadaf Ali, 23, an Afghan-Canadian, said that she had once been âa fairly practicing Muslim.â
During childhood, she said, âI was always fairly defiant.â As she grew older, she struggled with depression, and she thought that praying more and reading the Quran would help. She became more religious and looked forward to a traditional life. âI thought my life was sort of set out for me: get married, have children,â Ms. Ali said. âI might go to school. Iâll have a very domestic life. Thatâs what my family did, what my forefathers did.â
But as a university student, her feelings began to change.
Â âAs I started to investigate the religion, I realized I was talking to myself,â Ms. Ali said. âNobody was listening to me. I had just entered the University of Toronto, and critical thinking was a big part of my studies. I have an art history and writing background, and I realized every verse I had come acrossâ â in the Quran â âwas explicitly or implicitly sexist.â
Quickly, her faith crumbled.
âSo in 2009, I realized there probably is no God,â she said. âWhat is so wrong in having a boyfriend, or having premarital sex? What is wrong with wanting to eat and drink water before the sun goes down during Ramadan? What is so wrong with that? I couldnât handle the cognitive dissonance anymore.â
For the next three years, Ms. Ali thought of herself as an agnostic. She stopped practicing Islam. She still had Muslim friends, and her brother married into a religious Muslim family. Slowly, younger friends and relatives figured things out. âThey didnât seem to care that I wasnât Muslim,â Ms. Ali said. âBut I didnât go around telling my parents.â
Eventually, her parents heard.
âThey were incredibly upset, as they believe in an eternal hell,â Ms. Ali said. âThey are O.K. with me for the most part being irreligious,â she added. âBut we donât talk much about it anymore, and thatâs fine.â
The members of Ex-Muslims are adamant that they respect othersâ right to practice Islam. The groupâs motto is âNo Bigotry and No Apologism,â and text on its website is inclusive: âWe understand that Muslims come in all varieties, and we do not and will not partake in erasing the diversity within the worldâs Muslims.â
But they are equally adamant that it is still too difficult for Muslims inclined to atheism to follow their thinking where it may lead. Whereas skeptical Christians or Jews can take refuge in reformist wings of their tradition, religious Muslims generally insist on the literal truth of the Quran.
âI would say itâs maybe 0.1 percent who are willing to challenge the foundations of the faith,â said Nas Ishmael, another founder of the Ex-Muslims group who attended the conference.
So those who do challenge the foundations can feel isolated. According to Ms. Ali and her colleagues in Ex-Muslims of North America, they frequently hear from others, who say, âI thought I was the only one.â
When Ms. Dadabhoy âcame outâ to her parents, âit didnât go so well,â she said. âThey reacted the way they knew how, which was to freak out. They had never heard of anybody leaving Islam. We were raised with the idea you canât leave, that nobody can leave. Leaving Islam was something somebody incredibly deranged would do. Or if forced at sword point or gunpoint.â
Critics have accused her of being part of a Zionist conspiracy to make Islam look bad. âI say, âIf I am, where is my paycheck?âÂ â Ms. Dadabhoy said drolly.
For a time, Ms. Dadabhoyâs parents took her to imams, hoping to talk her out of her apostasy. âAnd they would just give me tautological beliefs,â she recalled. âÂ âYou are blessed to be born with Islam.â And I would say, âBut if I had been born a Christian, youâd be saying the same thing, but for Christianity.â Once I spent four hours talking with this imam, and his conclusion was, âJust have faith because you should have faith.âÂ â
At this point, Ms. Dadabhoyâs absence of belief is as ineluctable as the imamâs faith: âItâs less that I wonât buy it, which sounds really woeful, than that I canât.â
Â Source: New York Times