Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Journey of Disbelief: How did you tell your parents you were an Atheist?

Hi Eiynah! 

I came across your blog a few years ago and I'll be honest, it irked me. Reading posts on your Facebook that were against Islam infuriated me, yet I would still come back and stay updated about everything. I guess there was a part of me that was questioning my religion back then as well. 

After taking a few courses on Islam at University of ***, I slowly started to question my religion openly. I even visited an imam and asked him for answers, but his answers did not satisfy me. 

I started researching more and found more flaws in my religion. Growing up, I was only taught to read the Quran in Arabic, fast during Ramadan, pray sometimes, etc. I was not taught the controversial verses in the Quran, the flawed islamic history, etc. 

Today, I am not religious at all, but my family is. My question is, how did you tell your parents you were Atheist? I am tired of living a secret life. I want to wear whatever I want without worrying about putting family on privacy on Facebook. I want to openly confess that I drink. I want to be more vocal about homophobia, especially in our culture. I come from a Pakistani family as well. I do not want to lose my parents or disappoint them, but I am 21 and old enough to believe what I want. I won't say I am a full Atheist, but there is a lot of things in the Islamic tradition I find corrupt and flawed. How do I approach my parents without them wanting to disown me?

On a lighter note, I LOVE your blog! Keep up the great work. Women like you deeply inspire me.

- Shazia



Thank you so much for your kind and incredibly wonderful message. It's emails like yours, that make speaking out about this stuff worthwhile.

I am thrilled that you kept coming back even though what I was saying was hard to digest at that moment. I hope a similar curiosity lingers in other young Pakistani Muslims. We are so rarely encouraged to think critically, its hard to rid ourselves of indoctrination... I've been there, I can relate... though I think my journey was slightly easier than the average desi dissenter, because my parents weren't that religious and I was a skeptic even as a five year old. Though my parents of course didn't take it seriously.. I was always asking 'inappropriate' questions, or difficult ones they did not have answers for. They still don't have satisfactory answers but are less willing to entertain my questions now ;)

I will break my response down in sections, as I have quite a bit to say.

Early Questions

I grew up in a very progressive Muslim home, I suppose that encouraged rational thought. My dad was often critical of ultra-religious people, whilst never renouncing the faith...he showed me it was ok to question these things and even find them silly. A lot of my family members drink alcohol, but there was always a secrecy surrounding it, as if they were doing something they knew was 'wrong' (It didn't help that I grew up in Saudi where alcohol is illegal and acquired on the downlow). Those kinds of things confused me, because why would you do something you think is wrong in the first place? And if you don't think its wrong... why is it so hushed?

From my Shariah Beer post, check it out here

It was this search for a lack of hypocrisy, for consistency, that led to the undoing of my beliefs at an early age. I used to ask my mom how she knew we were born into the right religion, if there were others.... what if we were following the wrong one. She could never convince me really that she knew we were following the right one. That was a worry in the back of my mind as a kid.. because hell sounded horrific, frightening.

I asked for evidence of god before I hit 5 I think, and never was given any. I was told he is everywhere - which led me to feel rather awkward in the shower.... and wonder why this creep watches us bathe. I asked why he let bad things happen to good people and no one could really tell me why. As an adult, these questions seem valid still... so I guess it was pretty early on that I decided I wasn't buying it. This made the blow of my eventual godlessness much softer on my parents as they watched me grow up challenging everything. Of course I had some brief periods where I flirted with religion, nothing long lasting though.

One time in my life I decided I'd give religion and prayer a quick go, was right before my O levels (11th grade exams) - the most hardcore exams I had ever had till that point. Anyway, I just didn't want to take any risks...so I prayed. And studied... and did quite well. But then I couldn't keep up the religiosity for long after, and thought to myself..."surely if god is real, he knew I was making an opportunistic deal to pray only during my exams with him. So why would he help me do well...if he knew I wasn't really into it, and only doing it for selfish reasons. Is he easily fooled/tricked.... or did I do well because I studied..?"

Another constant concern in my childhood, was the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own fucking kid to show devotion to god. I remember feeling horror upon discovering this story.. and asking my mom about it. I asked her if she'd do that to me if god asked her or appeared in her dream...She said "Of course not!"

Hugely relieved, my young brain thought, "She's bad at being religious because she wouldn't follow Abraham's example and that makes her a good person! Phew... SO thankful my mom isn't good at being religious and won't sacrifice me if god asks!"

This god guy was starting to sound like an asshole.

Raised with Moderate Islam

Anyhow, aside from a few brief periods of dipping my toe into belief for purely selfish reasons, I was critical of what I saw around me all the time. I even remember asking for god's help (lol) in escaping my Quran classes, and whaddaya know, sometimes 'god' obliged. My Quran teacher would come in the late afternoons for an hour when I'd rather be playing in the park. Often, I hopped on my bike as soon as I saw him turning into our street. If my dad had returned from work, he went looking for me in the car - but I went into narrow alleyways and crossed through people's backyards, where the car couldn't go. I dodged him many a time, and successfully evaded class for that day. :D My parents and I often chuckle about this stuff when we talk about my childhood now.

When menstruation happened in pre-teen years (intelligent design indeed), it was an excellent tool to skip Quran class, (which sigh, yes I was *still* fighting to escape.... from about the age of 7 to like 13) - because god doesn't like filthy women praying/touching Qurans with their dirty menstruation hands (which *he* created supposedly) ... early menstruation cycles are irregular and can last longer... I took full advantage of this, and often added on an extra WEEK to my menstrual cycle, which no one questioned ;)

I never really had to 'come out' to my parents as a non-believer... it was an unspoken fact. I think somewhere in teenagehood I did say "I am not a Muslim.... don't call me that" once , and I'm sure I upset the parental units, but I don't think I shocked them in anyway. Of course, they have wondered about their own failings, and where they went wrong to raise me as such a heretic. Perhaps they blame their progressive ways... as they grow older they sadly become (a bit) more religious, but all things considered, fairly accepting of my non belief. It was more of a struggle when I was younger of course, when my parents thought they had more authority over me, or more responsibility to make sure I don't go to hell ... (which I am not convinced they themselves can entirely believe in) ...

Like you, I was not taught the bad, violent verses. I was not taught about blasphemy or apostasy even being a thing. The version I was taught truly seemed a lot more peaceful, even if it did claim that every non-muslim would go to hell. It was definitely more palatable. And I don't think I was purposely taught *only* the good parts, its really the only parts my parents knew about. Just like yours, our Quran lessons were in arabic and didn't mean a thing to me, I was just repeating words I didn't understand at all (which I thought was rather pointless). Now, that I have read a lot of the Quran in english, and looked at it with a critical eye, so much is utterly ludicrous. I sometimes show my mom verses...I ask her why she follows a religion that endorses this. I need to know for my own peace of mind.

Her immediate response is, "This can't be real". And then her response is, "I don't know, I have never seen that before" . What I have come to realize is that many of the more progressive and modern Muslims (like moderate Christians) know not what they endorse by 'believing in' their scriptures. And by the time someone questions them on it, its too deeply ingrained to be unraveled. They get defensive, and are unwilling to listen... they shut down all conversation. Cognitive dissonance...the fingers go in the ears.... la la la la....

I can hardly fault people for being a little resistant to criticism of something that has seemingly been so harmless their whole life, something that has provided them with so much comfort. I fault them for not listening, yes. You were irked by my posts, but you read, you tried to see the other side. Not shutting off conversation is very important if one wants to truly think for themselves. If you don't have answers to why certain things are a certain way, it is on you to seek them out. If you refuse to seek them out, then you are not thinking for yourself. So kudos to you for searching, for going to an Imam, for searching beyond that when his answers did not satisfy you.

My Agnostic Years

For most of my life I identified as an agnostic. Even before I knew there was a word for it....one doesn't really come by such terms in Saudi Arabia, especially in the pre-internet era. When we had internet, every second site was censored. I knew I didn't believe in religion at all, but I was reluctant to say I didn't believe in god...even though, on the inside I felt kind of silly clinging to this ....I felt incredibly untrue to myself ..for not being able to say I didn't believe in a 'creator'. I tried to deflect, and say maybe the creator was just a 'force' or 'energy' or 'science' or whatever....trying to imply that it was not the traditional understanding of god. I read more about atheism, and realized that I could no longer pretend. I did feel that making a leap from agnostic to atheist would ruffle more feathers than my pretty uneventful journey from 'muslim' to agnostic...and in my life this was true. This was perhaps what was holding me back from saying it. My last five agnostic years felt oppressive, and I felt I was keeping my disbelief in check just so I didn't upset anyone, just so I didn't offend.

Finally I could take no more, I had lost the will to pretend... I think my blog had a big part in that. Once I started writing about sexuality in our culture (In the early days I promised myself I'd not write about religion, and keep my views about it to myself because of the risks involved). Back then I took apologist stances which did not reflect my actual thoughts, 'This is not true Islam' etc. I tried to write just about sexuality, but it was hard to divorce it from the effects that religion has on it, especially in our part of the world (Pakistan). It was difficult to write about injustices towards women and not mention the correlation with religious belief about these things.

I also found that just writing about sex I got enough death and rape threats, which I was initially trying to avoid... and gradually said, "Fuck it. I can't sugarcoat anymore." 


Once I became an 'unapologetic' atheist as opposed to a tip-toeing (closet) one, it came as no surprise to my parents. So things have remained uneventful on that front. There are occasional tensions during dinner table conversations, when I visit ('Moderate' Muslim passive-aggression towards non believers is another blogpost entirely). Thankfully no one in my parental home prays before a meal *gag*. 

However, things didn't go so well with some agnostic friends....I lost friends I used to laugh about religion with, only because I spoke out as an 'atheist'... that was a bit odd. But its cool, I am a freer person for it.

I can feel your pain with the parents. Even though mine have never been overly religious, there were religion based rules we had growing up. Obviously no one listened... but we couldn't be open about dating, drinking, wearing short skirts. However, when I moved out (to Canada) for uni I did whatever I liked and my parents kind of gave up I guess. They were not thrilled with the purple haired 18 year old returning home from uni, or with the piercings I was adding to my collection...but there's only so much you can do when an 'adult' offspring rebels, right? This is of course different if you are in Pakistan..but luckily I wasn't.

My extended family and Pakistani family friends had a field day spreading rumours about how I was a slut, how I had joined a devil-worship cult, how I drank blood, how i was into bestiality (whut?) .. but these are the kinds of things one must prepare for if going against the Pakistani/Muslim mould... especially if you have a vagina.

How to tell your Muslim Parents you are a devil worshipper Non-Believer

1) First, identify what kind of muslim parents you have. Are they extremists? If so... best to lay low till you get out of their house, I'm afraid. You could be in actual physical danger if you express non-belief. If they are 'moderates' or progressives, you may be safe from physical harm, but may still be shunned. Also remember that the prescribed punishment for apostasy in Islam is death. It is justifiable to some people's conscience, so always know that in the back of your mind when wanting to 'come out'. Even a slight expression of doubt can have you branded as an apostate. Safety first. Only approach your family with doubts if you are confident no one will harm you, and even then...take it slow.

2) Once you have identified that your family is approachable about your non-belief. Express it in baby steps. Its important to be gradual and do this over the long term for most effectiveness. If you are a teenager expressing doubt and you know your family can handle it, its better to express it now, in small doses, rather than hold it in all your life and shock your family all of a sudden.

3) Social media hassles are not worth it. Trust me, just have a separate Facebook account for your family. Even if you try to fiddle with the privacy settings and what not, someone somewhere will see you holding a pint of beer in a picture. And then all hell could break loose depending on your family's alcohol policy. :/ It's just simpler to have a 'kosher' account and a regular account. It sucks that we have to do this, but I'd rather no one got into trouble over photographic evidence. I have heard of girls being honour-killed over photos with their boyfriends (not saying your family is like that, but someone's might be). Sorry, as a community we are just not there yet ..to trust an extended network of people with photos of our heretic lives. Even if it's not physical danger you are worried about, you will certainly be branded as a whore or something along those lines. Your parents might be shamed.... its just not worth it. You can have two profiles...or keep your Facebook minimal. Don't share too many photos, be vigilant about changing privacy settings, etc.

4) The wearing what you like bit - that can be done gradually too perhaps...maybe you can start by wearing something semi-controversial and work your way up? Are you moving out any time soon? Because thats an effective way to tell your parents that you are an adult. I know its rarer in our culture for kids to move out before they are married... :/ I am so bad at relating to this part, especially because by 16 I was wearing dog collars ..which my parents loathed, but I did it anyway.... I guess, just do little things you want to do and build up their tolerance... ? Is that even helpful? :/

5) Alcohol - At 21 you are certainly of legal age, and old enough to make that decision for yourself. My parents have known I drink for years, but they are still uncomfortable when I have a glass of wine in front of them. Im not sure how to normalize this. I talk about drinking in front of my parents all the time, I've had friends over at their house, I've had drinks at their dinner parties, we've had beers during barbecues in their backyard....but there is always judgement in their eyes. I don't know what it is... especially because I'm a woman... and trust me I am over legal age haha.. but somehow its more acceptable for them that my husband or brother drinks..my mom still makes comments about how girls shouldn't drink much. Smh. I love her dearly... but i don't know what the fuck to do about this. People tell me just being able to drink in front of your parents is a big deal in Pakistani culture... but it still seems pretty awkward to me.

6) Sex - you are 21... no one but you gets to decide sex matters for you. Just remember to be safe always, and if you have questions I'm here :) If you live in the west, I'm pretty sure you can get access to condoms from uni. Don't let anyone pressure you into anything you're not comfortable with. Doctors here are understanding of the fact that sex is a part of normal healthy adult life, you should have no problem talking to your doctor about it, if you need to. If you are in Pakistan, be very very careful discussing this even with your doctor. Look to science, not religion for matters of (sexual) health always. This is advice i'd give to people of any religion, any level of belief or disbelief. Pakistani parents (people) are not so easy to talk to about sex, it's one of the reasons I started my blog

7) Maybe watching movies, documentaries on the topic of disbelief might help your parents understand your perspective? Or will help you get a feel for what their thoughts are on the subject, before you open up to them.

8) Stop praying - if this is demanded of you in any setting (and you are uncomfortable), refuse if possible. Especially being a woman, a lot of people at community gatherings don't question much... incase you have a case of the monthly devil blood. Eventually people get used to you being one of the ones that don't pray. This is a good solid step. :)

9) Human Rights - this is something you can take a solid stance on without compromises (and watch any religion come undone itself). I've seen many 'religious' muslims supportive of equality... rights for women and LGBT. For their roundabout justifications you can visit their websites :P Might be a good way to ease family into it. The modern world is on the right side of this for the most part (Not Indiana), you do not have to feel like you are alone in calling out homophobia, misogyny. There are tons of articles, videos, resources to turn to and to show to your family if they question why. If they openly say 'this is forbidden in our religion', then you can question if that makes sense...


Hope some of these tips are helpful, I know they won't work for everyone... but this would be my advice based on my lived experiences. I also hope that sharing my journey of disbelief was some consolation and offered some support. To anyone questioning, my advice would be read, search, look up whatever you are doubting.

Thank you for writing Shazia, I hope you inspire others. I have been hearing from quite a few young Pakistanis who have been questioning their faith and who have found some comfort in my blogposts. You guys are hope for the future, our way out of this ancient indoctrination, this culture usurped by extremists.

Much love,


A huge thanks to my patrons: Lisa Fontaine, Ali Sajid Imami, Humanist Agressor, Jesus&Mo, Pastafarian Woman, Alexander, Know the Question, Mb Cunney, Leneke Van Houten, Alberto and Yasmien - your support means a lot and will help me allocate more time towards writing and drawing!

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  1. Your story sounded like my story to me. Only that I didn't get to live in Saudia or Canada. Just our old regular Pakistan. I think that my parents have an inkling about my disbelief. There have been no declaration but I think that at some level they know.
    I whole heartedly agree to the point you made about refusing to pray. This was something I did and my parents eventually gave up.
    Irrespective of the level of family tolerance, it is still very hard being a desi non-believer but it's kinda worth it when you know that you are not allowing your life to be dictated by age old scriptures.

    1. It's very hard I know ... :( And yes definitely worth it, just for the freedom of thought and speech alone..

  2. Awesome :D
    I'm a Pakistani who left the religion at the same age.I'm 22 now,and a whole life of intellectual freedom awaits me.
    Wish you the best of luck Shazia.

    1. YaY! <3 Wish you all the best...and so much guilt free happiness awaits! Enjoy this life. Because there ain't one after ;)

  3. hiya amazing story hey eiynah could you recommend anymore blogs or websites like yours ,about pakistani culture,islam feminism atheism? etc

    1. Sadly I don't think these are topics you'll find together on one site very often :/ I'm not aware of any others combining all of them under one blog.

  4. Good for you, Shazia. Best wishes. :-)
    Great blog post. Possible subtitle: little known advantages of periods. :P

  5. Hey a fellow Atheist Pakistani Canadian here. You are providing a great platform for people like Shazia. Keep up the good work.

  6. Received this wonderful heartwarming response from shazia after she read all the support for her here and on facebook

    "Wow!! Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and detailed reply Eiynah! I think I have re read it about 10 times already haha. I loved reading your story. Although our situations are somewhat different (your parents seem more leniant than mine), you've given great advice! I'll definitely express my thoughts in baby steps. I have not prayed in over a year and even my family notices and make comments sometimes. I've always felt guilty since I don't want to disappoint my parents but at the end of the day, it is my life and I can choose to live it any way I want. If they truly do love me, they won't shun me because of it. Having a separate Facebook for family is a great idea as well! Majority of close minded Pakistanis talk shit so I should be more careful. Although I don't care about what they say about me, I know they would comment on my parents and how they have not raised me right so it's best to avoid all that. Once again, thank you so much for everything! You are amazing!! I'm overwhelmed by the supportive comments people are posting as well. Seriously warms my heart "

  7. I'm a Pakistani who left organized Islam-- I do not believe in the Quran and Hadith-- but I still have faith in a higher power. For many of us who have trouble leaving religion because we have a history of being taught only the peaceful, happy Islam, and because it has given us so much comfort, I would recommend choosing something that is in-between faith and atheism. Many people call me a militant atheist because I am so outraged by the injustices in the Quran, but in my private life, I still pray (without a headscart or prayer mat or up-down rituals, and yes, during always my period). I pray for comfort. I struggle with an anxiety disorder, and in the past the only thing that has helped me is praying. I have tried yoga and meditation and breathing exercises to supplement prayer, but it hasn't worked. So for the budding atheists out there-- I just want to say that faith in the universe or a higher power (who I always imagine as maternal, and I use she/her pronouns for this power) can still be held intact while being ethical and anti-religion. The violent thing about religion is its moralism and unethical inhumane teachings, not the faith in some power who will always protect you.

    1. I think its important for people to take the unraveling of their beliefs at their own pace. I'm glad you have found a happy medium that satisfies you. :) Whatever works! They key is in asking questions and arriving at your own path, rather than taking the route you're supposed to, as dictated by ancient ideologies. Good on you! Don't stop questioning.