CAIRO - Five male members of an atheist group congregate in one of Cairo’s crowded downtown bars, sipping beer and Pepsi as they discuss their thoughts on religion, sex, science, culture, politics and Egypt’s new ruling regime.
The group, which also shares idea on an atheist website, has been holding weekly meetings since Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election on June 24. It consists of both former Muslims and former Christians.
Mohamed, the group’s founder, says the group holds get-togethers “as a forum where we can openly speak our minds.” Like the other atheists quoted in this story, his full name has not been used for his own security.
Group members say they do not seek to proselytize. “We are not a church, nor a religion,” one says.
Commenting the ongoing trial of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber on charges of blasphemy for his Facebook posts, the group member says that this trial “worries me, and has made me think twice before posting my thoughts on Facebook.”
Discussing atheism or criticizing religion in Egypt can only be done in closed circles like these.
Several Facebook groups about atheism have been “voluntarily” shut down over the past few weeks, and most atheists appear to be keeping a low profile since Saber’s arrest last month. On the other hand, other atheists have been “coming out of the closet” and expressing their beliefs — or disbelief — as openly as possible.
The Internet has connected many non-believers, introducing them to a virtual community that shares their outlook.
The widespread taboo of “thou shall not question” has gradually weakened with the advent of forums, blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Before the expansion of social networks in the region, the most prominent blog among non-believers was the Network of Arab Atheists, created in 2006, explains Shady, another non-believer.
Though it has been hacked many times, the site acted as a portal for many anonymous atheists in Egypt and the region.
Since then, the number of Arab atheist groups, blogs and forums has grown noticeably.
Most sites have not been set up to promote atheism, Mohamed explains, but rather as forums for likeminded people to share their thoughts.
He says there has been a massive increase in new members since the revolution. “The numbers went up dramatically, more than tenfold; it’s as if people were waiting for that space of freedom to express themselves openly.”
Offline meetings are regularly organized through his group, although the locations are never publicly advertised.
What is possible or permissible, in terms of atheists’ freedom of expression, is determined not only by Egypt’s criminal law, but also by law enforcement officials and popular religious sentiment.
The ‘A’ word
In Egypt, atheists represent a small segment of the population that refuses to adhere to religious doctrines. This tendency has been more or less tolerated, as long as atheists keep their beliefs to themselves.
On the other hand, disseminating atheistic views can be viewed as blasphemy, denigration, defamation or contempt of religion — all crimes punishable by law.
The state “does not recognize atheism, as a belief or religion, by law,” says Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Egyptians cannot put “atheist’ on their national ID cards in the space allocated for religion, Azer explains. They must choose from three religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.
One atheist, Ahmed, explains that, given the conservative nature of society, most other Egyptian atheists would probably be unwilling to have “atheist” written on their ID cards, out of fear of discriminatory treatment or abuse at the hands of officials and employers.
Azer says the willingness to tolerate or criminalize atheism is still being tested under President Mohamed Morsi.
“The Morsi government isn’t clearly against or with these freedoms. We still have the same laws and same mentalities as before,” he says.
While it might be tolerated to one extent or another, atheism is not welcome in the religious society of Egypt. Families can go as far as disowning their own relatives, friends might turn away, and, in more conservative communities, the reactions to atheism or atheists can be calamitous.
Neveen, at 27, is a graduate of biology school who lost her faith years ago. Egypt Independent sat in on an informal discussion with her and several of her friends, who share a similar understanding of the world.
Their stories of growing up in a country saturated with religious beliefs reveal intolerance to any mindset that deviates from the “God-sent” norms.
“Why are we hated for the way our minds are wired?” she exclaims despondently. “Why are we scorned, looked down upon and persecuted for our personal logic?”
She recalls being grounded for questioning a verse in the Koran that conflicted with what she had learned in biology about the stages of fetal development. The incident propelled her yearning for knowledge and her choice of career.
Her friend Mohamed says he has been living a secret life, hiding his atheism from his parents since the age of 19, pretending to fast and pray when he is called to.
“I put my head down and act the way they do. I know they’ll never understand,” he explains in a somber tone.
Should I stay or should I go?
Abdel Aziz, an atheist and advocate for freedom of thought, left Egypt for South Africa after failing to find any common ground with the culture he was raised in. Although his family had accepted his way of life, he could not deal with a society that treated him like an outcast.
He has a different opinion regarding the Egyptian mentalities toward atheists.
“I think atheism has already been spreading among the community, especially over the last decade,” Ahmed says. “More people will come to question the fundamentals of religion.”
As for Mido, who has more recently ‘come out’ of the atheist closet, he believes that the ideas are spreading.
“But I don’t see it taking over religion, especially not in Egypt ... perhaps in several hundred years,” he says.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.