One of the people involved in the project is Alom Shaha, who’s been an active voice for atheists/humanists from ethnic minorities or with religious backgrounds, particularly since he wrote an article on ‘coming out’ as an atheist a couple of years back. He’s also the author of The Young Atheists Handbook, a candid, emotional and life-affirming story of his leaving behind of the Islam of his childhood following the death of his mother. I keep meaning to write a proper review but it's one of those books that struck such a chord, that I have so much to write about, that I don't know where to start.
I think that people who haven’t grown up in a religious home or community occasionally have a hard time understanding just how difficult it is to come to terms with both the potentially seismic change in self-identity, and the reactions of others and real potential for losing friends and loved ones, that leaving a religion involves (just read the comments stream on Alom’s article).
I am relatively lucky to have been brought up in a home where the religion was my mum's vague and mostly 'cultural' Hinduism; My dad has always been a largely apathetic agnostic. I remember having to say prayers before bed when I was very young but that stopped without any fuss when I hit my teens. The only time religion came up was when we celebrated Diwali and went to weddings, and even then it was more about my parents, especially my mum, staying part of the social community and keeping in touch with friends and family.
Whilst there was never any real pressure on me to be religious or believe in god, little bits of religious thinking did seep through into my adulthood. Because cows are sacred animals for Hindus we never had beef in our house (we always had to have a McChicken sandwich on the rare occasion we were treated to McDonald's as kids). Even after I left home to go to uni, I continued to avoid eating beef, not because I thought it was holy, but because of that other word beginning with h which provides fertile soil for religion to grow: habit. It was in my second year at uni, at the age of 21, that I had my version of Alom’s ‘bacon moment’. Deciding what to have for dinner one day, my girlfriend asked me why we couldn’t just share a Meat Feast Domino's if I wasn’t religious and didn’t think that cows were sacred. ‘Hmm, I don’t know’, I remember saying, ‘I’ve never really thought about it’.
It was the small act of ordering and eating that pizza that kick-started some real hard thinking about why I did the things I did. Those little nuggets of processed cow (or more accurately, and to give her her dues, my girlfriend’s questioning) kick-started a process of self-criticism which made me promise to myself that from then on I would think through things more carefully and do something because I had thought it through and valued it, not just out of habit or because 'I don't know'. (Incidentally, that was the same year that, despite knocking back uncountable cans of Stella, all my childhood prayers in Gujarati coming back to me, word-for-word, when Xabi Alonso stepped up to take that penalty against Milan.)
It was still a while after I started eating beef before I told my mum. I don’t know what I thought her reaction would be, but I just didn’t want to upset her. I can’t actually remember what triggered it any more but one day I just blurted out ‘Yeah, I don’t believe in god and I’ve been eating beef for ages, but it’s not exactly the worst thing I could do; Wouldn’t you be more upset if I’d started doing drugs at uni instead?’ She couldn’t fault my logic and the slight twinge of disappointment I saw on her face faded almost immediately. I think the fact that I was away at uni and doing well helped soften the blow. Thankfully, getting a first trumped having to believe in Ganesh.
My mother’s short-lived disappointment aside, there were no real repercussions for me. My parents got more hassle from my extended family (although not a lot) because I married someone white than because I am actively an atheist, but that’s a blog for another time. Mostly, my relatives had other things to worry about, and my friends, most of them religious to some degree, didn’t seem to care much either.
All told, I know that had an easy time of it. I know of a friend of a friend who has come to realise that he doesn’t believe in god, but he lives in a devoutly Muslim country with a wife and two children who don’t know how he feels. He doesn’t know what will happen if he tells his wife, but he continues to live as a Muslim, the risk of losing his family too big to take. Closer to home, I have a friend who I’m sure doesn’t really believe but it trapped in his religion and the fear of how his family and friends will judge him. His is such an interesting story and I wish I could write more, but I don’t want to risk ‘outing’ him; it’s his decision to make and his alone.
My friend knows that I am here for him if and when the time comes. There are, however, countless others who know in themselves that they aren’t religious but fear the repercussions of saying so and may not have someone to turn to. The Apostasy Project is important because we live in a world where people are threatened and punished with ostracism, jail, torture and even death for thinking for themselves. It’s important for people to know that there are others out there that understand what they are going through, that there is a community that is able to show them that whilst it may be tough to leave religion behind, it'll be worth it because it means opening up to a world where you are loved, valued and respected because of who you are and what you do, not because of the god(s) you worship.
This project deserves all the help it can get. You can do your bit by donating what you can through Just Giving.