Confessions of a Pakistani Atheist

Sunday, 9 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 10:45pm IST | Agency: DNA
A number of young people are denouncing faith and questioning religion in Pakistan, where blasphemy laws can invite life imprisonment and in extreme cases, the death penalty. Manisha Pande speaks to two non-believers who talk of their journey from faith to freedom. Here is their story...
  • Sudhir Shetty DNA

Sara Rehman*
*Name changed

I remember, I finally plucked the courage to come out of my religious closet and admit to being an agnostic on September, 17, 2011. It has been more than two years since. Questioning my faith was one of the toughest things I did in my life. I went into depression but didn’t seek any help. I lost all will to live because I thought I was all alone.

I live in Rawalpindi Cantonment, near Islamabad. Home to Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters, the city is a quintessential military town. All we have here are military units, institutions and housing colonies. And, yes, my dad was in the military. I will be applying for law school this June.

The day I realised I was an agnostic, I searched for the keywords “Pakistani atheists and agnostics” on the internet and found a Facebook group that went by that name. I sent a request to the group and it got accepted after five torturously long days.

I met a lot of wonderful people in the group. After staying in the group for a few months and talking to different people online, I finally realised that I was an agnostic-atheist, which means I don’t know for sure whether a god(s) exists, but given the scarcity of evidence, I’m inclined to believe that there is probably no god.

I had been raised an Ismaili, a minority group and sub-sect of Shia Islam. Ismailis tend to be the most liberal of Muslims. They allow women to lead prayers, they also have women in positions of religious importance like kamdar, which is the Ismaili equivalent of a moulvi. Polygamy is prohibited.

Women’s rights, in general, are promoted and protected in the jamatkhanas, which is the Ismaili equivalent of a mosque. The only reason I didn’t leave Islam earlier was because women are given most of their rights in the Ismaili tradition, apart from the fact that women can’t be imams, or spiritual heads. That was something that made me doubt Ismailism. I also came to realise that the imam is not divinely appointed, something that our religion purports him to be.

I was never a staunch, practicing Ismaili. I didn’t pray regularly, Ismailis are required  to pray  just twice a day. I didn’t fast and I didn’t go to the jamatkhana regularly.

My mother was a Twelver Shia, (those who celebrate Muharram and believe in 12 divinely ordained imams). My dad, an Ismaili, always had a problem with my mother’s faith and would fight a lot with my mother about it despite the fact that she had converted to Ismailism when she married him.

The divide between my parent’s faiths and their families got me thinking and questioning religion from a very young age. I liked the people from both sides but I saw how they turned against each other because of their religious differences and it made me skeptical about religion.

Islam forbids the questioning of the existence of God. There can be no questions about it. It is the worst crime to question his existence. This idea didn’t quite cut the ice with me. I studied about other religions and Buddhism was a personal favourite but I realised that all religious beliefs lack an empirical basis. I used to have a lot of doubts when I was an Ismaili and a deist but I used to get really scared and banished those thoughts from my head because I felt I would go  straight  to hell for questioning god’s existence. I also used to feel depressed, guilty, afraid and alone.

But everything changed when I found other Pakistani atheists on Facebook. The group had more than three hundred members from all over Pakistan when I joined it. Now it has more than a thousand. I was never a fan of social networking but since I felt so isolated I thought why not. In fact  I got addicted and checked and commented on the group page every single day. Most members report similar experiences.

My mother, sister, brothers, one of my maternal first cousin and four of my friends know I’m an atheist. My father is very strict. He has an inkling that I have doubts but I have never told him upfront, nor has he confronted me about it.

Everyone, except my mother, took the news in their stride. My mother was very unhappy. At first, she didn’t think I was serious since I was her “good child” and  dismissed it as a passing phase.
Now, she often asks me whether my insanity has passed or not and questions me, rather angrily, if I still call myself an atheist. I don’t know how my extended family will react. Of course, they don’t love me as much as my close family to understand.

I was spiritual for a very long time but it was immensely unsatisfying because I saw so much hatred and suffering around me. I myself was ostracised and discriminated against by most Muslims because I was an Ismaili. Mainstream Muslims believe that Ismailis are not true Muslims.

I was unable to reconcile with the idea of an all-loving god with all the misery and injustice I saw around me. There was also a rational side to me that realised that there was no evidence of a divine creator who might be interested in the minutiae of people’s lives.

With experience, I realised  that it isn’t prayer that pulls a person through in times of distress. It is well thought-out decisions and ingenuity that helps. I realised that prayers don’t work. My father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a decade ago. Prayers didn’t help with his manic episodes, medicines did.

There are atheists, agnostics and skeptics all over Pakistan. We co-ordinate through Facebook. We have meetings in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan. We usually meet in restaurants where we can have some privacy to discuss our opinions over a meal.

Most people are too scared to come out of their religious closets. Some report being emotionally, verbally, psychological and even physically abused by their families. So, most people prefer to go through the motions of faith, because being  discriminated against is not a pretty situation to be in.

Fatima Jehangir*
*Name changed

I was born in Lahore and grew up in Pakistan until I turned 18. I then went to the Middle East to study and am currently pursuing my bachelors in a university here, working part time to support my studies.

I took to atheism very gradually. I was born in a strict, religious family. I grew up reading the Quran as an everyday ritual. Half my family is Sunni and the other half Shia. I have no idea how they got along with each other for so long.

Although, my mother was a staunch believer, she was never an extremist. I recall that my parents took up strict Shia practices when I was about 10 or 11. By that I mean, the Shia rituals of Muharram, mourning the Karbala incident and so on. Till the age of 17, I was quite a strong believer as well and followed the Shia rituals wholeheartedly.

Then, gradually, while studying biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, I started spotting the contradictions in science and religion. It begged the question  of the  probability of  prayers being answered. I slowly realised that prayers were like a random Lotto. In the beginning, this doubt in religion frightened me. It is hard to let go of an inherent fear of questioning or doubting your religion when you have been indoctrinated with it from birth.

I studied the Quran with detailed translations and interpretations of various scholars. I bought a copy of the Bible  as well. Gradually, while studying Islam and its history in detail and reading other religious books, I couldn’t help but notice the contradictions, the strange stories and claims and the sheer inequality and discrimination against women. I think that was the stepping stone to my turning away from religion. The fact that everything seemed to run in favour of men.

It just didn’t add up that a book written by a supernatural being would so unabashedly favour the  male species for no particular reason. It started to dawn on me that it must be nothing but a man-made propaganda to control the masses and their women. I gave up religion at around 18, but did not talk about it fearing the consequences.

My mother did not take my coming out too badly but her family is very conservative. This was a rash and stupid decision. That is part of the reason why I am not based in Pakistan anymore. They follow a fundamentalist leader who ordered some men to kidnap and rape me. They, then, threatened to report my blasphemies and apostasy.

So, basically, I had two choices — death sentence by the courts or death by submitting to their demands. I miraculously fled and very narrowly escaped the situation.

I had studied the Abrahamic religions in a little detail before denouncing religion. But I realised soon that my freedom lay in finding my own philosophy of life rather than leaving one religion for another.

Spirituality, for me, comes from the wonder that is the universe - when I read about the cosmos, the galaxies, the stars and the intricate and delicate workings of a living being. I derive strength from knowledge of the world. Just knowing that there is so much to learn and so much to see gives me inspiration.


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