Some nontheists who leave religion don’t encounter much opposition (or are lucky enough to be encouraged!) and don’t see their atheist identity as something to fight for. Others have faced strenuous hardships in their deconversion and see their atheism as integral and crucial to their identity. I encountered both simultaneously.
A substantial part of my childhood was spent in Pakistan, where religion was normalized, even though many people don’t hold up all five pillars of Islam like everyone here in the US assumes they do. Praying five times a day was not something everyone did, even though they all knew they were supposed to do so. Shops closed down often during prayer time, and even those who weren’t praying knew and understood why they did. I saw most of these events as a matter of course. Everyone there had these same customs, so it didn’t seem to me as though religion were encroaching on anything or inconveniencing anyone. Non-Muslims theoretically existed in Pakistan, but I had never known one or known anyone who knew one, so these Pakistani non-Muslims were far outside the realm of my consciousness.
I didn’t grow up with a fire and brimstone god. I called him Allah mian. Mian in Urdu is something you call a kindly old man, usually an uncle or neighbor. My god didn’t turn to punishing hellfire until after I immigrated to the land of sin and temptation. Fire and brimstone didn’t seem to be very necessary in Pakistan. If shops are closed and nothing really happens during prayer time, if every mosque in the city is blaring the azaan, then there’s less opportunity for anyone to be distracted from prayer. If non-halal food simply isn’t sold anywhere around you, then there’s no chance of you even accidentally consuming something non-halal. Simply being surrounded by Muslims afforded me a certain amount of baseline piety.
A greater portion of my childhood was spent in South Florida, where there’s nothing but religious plurality. The norms that I had previously experienced and that favored at least some of my identities were no longer present. Even within that religious plurality and despite the fact that South Florida has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country, being Muslim made me a religious minority in the United States.
After I got to the United States, I experienced specific instances that I now recall changing my feelings about religion.
The first one took place within the hour immediately after I first set foot on American soil. On the drive from JFK airport, I saw a Hasidic Jew for the first time. A relative pointed him out to me, as I was certainly too overwhelmed by everything to notice that on my own, so that he could note for me that most people here were not Muslim. At the time, it wasn’t something that shook my faith. It was only in retrospect that I realized at that moment my worldview had already begun to shift.
Then when I was nine, I accidentally ate bacon-topped pizza at Pizza Hut, because I thought the pizza was topped with onions. I cried at the table because I thought god would never forgive me, even though my family told me it would be okay because it was an accident. I also remember an occasion in middle school where I was disinvited from a birthday party by someone who told me I was one of her best friends at the time because she didn’t want her Christian friends to know she had any non-Christian friends.
Looking back, most of my experience as a Muslim in the US has been one of alienation, which I can’t separate from my experience as an immigrant or as South Asian, rather than one of intentional persecution. It’s very likely that if I had moved to Missouri, for example, I would not have been so lucky. This feeling of distance is why I find it bewildering that some people accuse ex-Muslims of leaving Islam out of a need for acceptance from non-Muslims (“selling out”). In my experience, leaving religion did not reduce the alienation I felt from non-Muslims. Instead it added another layer of alienation and isolation from still-believing people from Muslim backgrounds, when the only thing I sought was the ability to not feel like I was living a lie.
I also distinctly remember the first time I heard people talk about atheism in a positive way. One day at lunch when I was in high school and already a nonbeliever, a couple of kids in Mu Alpha Theta, a math honor society, were clearly having some sort of heated discussion. Two of them, both people of color and one from a Christian background while the other was from a Hindu background, were trying to convince a teammate, who was not someone of color, that his Catholicism didn’t make sense. I note their respective racial political groups specifically because as I now understand, atheism is overwhelmingly seen as a “white” thing, but the first people I ever heard unambiguously, openly, and favorably talking about atheism and the irrationality of religion were of color.
Many people find their way to atheism or even agnosticism because they were convinced by someone else’s arguments. I don’t remember anyone ever trying to convert me from Islam, or ever reading a book laying out arguments for atheism. For some, religion is a philosophical question; for me, it has been a political designation from the moment I realized it was not an innate characteristic I was born with. My atheism has been largely built on the feeling that I have never been touched by anything divine, as well as upon a sense of compassion for those who would be needlessly punished under a fatuously wrathful god, were all such doctrines to hold true.
My faith had never really been something I chose. It was just something everyone did; it was totally crowdsourced. And then the crowd changed. It wasn’t sudden or much of a struggle to realize I didn’t believe. It happened slowly and steadily. It was something I didn’t feel until it was incapable of being denied. I simply realized that I was performing rituals I already didn’t believe in, out of fear of the possibility that there was a god. Now, an essential feature of my beliefs is that even if I were eventually convinced of the existence of a god, I would not want to worship it if I could help it. No gods and no masters.