Which country is most open to atheism?

"Drugs, sexual debauchery and the occult"

There are adventurous ideas about the lifestyle of non-religious people in Egypt, says Johann Esau. Last year, the master's student at the Philipps University of Marburg traveled to the country on the Nile for four weeks to examine the worlds of Arab atheists. In the interview he now reports on his experiences.

For his investigation from mid-August to mid-September, Esau interviewed six young Egyptian men and five women who do not believe in a god. How did they come to atheism, how does it affect everyday and family life and where do they meet other people who are also non-religious?

Mr. Esau, last year you went on a research trip to Egypt on the subject of atheism. The aim was to examine the worlds of Arab atheists. What are your conclusions?

Johann Esau: Of course, that cannot be answered so quickly. I did a qualitative study with partially standardized interviews. This means that although I had a few questions, I always tried to ask them openly in order to hear the unexpected. To do this, I conducted eleven interviews, six with men and five with women, all between the ages of 20 and 35.

What religious backgrounds did the interview partners come from?

I only interviewed atheists. Two of the eleven respondents had a Coptic background, the rest came from Muslim families.

What kind of questions did you ask them?

I tried to work on three areas in particular. On the one hand, I wanted to find out the motives that lead young people to atheism in a very religious society. What they all have in common is that they have had a good education and a relatively strong critical spirit, as I call it. Most of them at some point asked questions about God and religion that were not answered at all or answered very unsatisfactorily. When at some point they met people who thought and spoke very critically about religions in general, they were encouraged to question them. This contact with new friends plays the decisive role for almost everyone. Some even have some kind of mentor who accompanied them through the process. Above all, it is questions of natural science and evolution, of tolerance and the claim to absoluteness of religion, as well as discrimination against women, with which the respondents did not get along.

According to the Federal Foreign Office, 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim, five to ten percent Christian, and two percent belong to another religious community. Photo: Alwine Esau

The second question was about the everyday life of atheists. All of them live a kind of double life, on very different levels. Some openly refer to themselves as atheists in front of family and friends and have no major problems to fear. Only two of the eleven respondents have to play a real game of hide-and-seek. A 30-year-old doctor who lives with her parents wears a headscarf every day and adheres to all Islamic rules that society and of course her parents expect. She would have to expect drastic consequences if she came out, so she hides. She uses a pseudonym on the Internet; she rarely meets her atheist friends and then under a pretext. The other is not only an atheist, but also homosexual, which he has to hide even more. It is interesting that the respondent with the most religious parents - his father holds a leadership position in the Muslim Brotherhood - can live most openly as an atheist.

What else was it about?

The role of the so-called “Arab Spring” should also be examined. Contrary to what was assumed, the beginning of the revolt in January 2011 did not make the difference for anyone not to want to have any more religion. All of them have already dealt critically with their religion beforehand. The biggest change is the new openness with which social taboos are being shaken. It wasn't until 2011 that many dared to look for like-minded people and network. In a time when a lot was changing, the atheists also created their spaces. Now they are present on the Internet, often with their real names, and also meet in real life.