It’s difficult to establish a common atheist experience. Some of us grew up without religion entirely, while many others have deconverted from different religions. Experiences after deconversion differ as well; in the United States, atheists who used to be Muslims and atheists who used to be Christians have categorically different experiences. Here are a few of those stark differences:
1. The identity of “Muslim” is heavily racialized.
One will often hear the argument that “Muslim” is not a race, and while this is technically true, there is a caveat to this. As a social construct, race is subject to whatever context is being applied to it, and as a result it has shifted over time and place, sometimes drastically. Nowadays, the popular idea of a Muslim conjures up the image of an ambiguously brown-skinned person, often with other markers that have been construed racially, such as the hijab or a long beard. It is specifically because this racialization exists that ex-Muslims are subject to much of what Muslims in the West are subject to.
For example, because race is in the eye of the beholder, anti-Muslim hate crimes have been committed against Sikhs, simply because the assailant believed that that was what a Muslim looked like. So it goes for ex-Muslims. The things that used to mark me as “Muslim brown” were my long hair, the hijab I wore (during the time I wore the hijab), and the fact that the closest I ever got to showing skin was my upper arms. Nowadays, my hair is cut to my shoulders, and I show my shoulders and legs. As a result, I am more ambiguously brown, and people occasionally stop me on the street or on the bus to ask me if I speak Spanish—or simply start speaking in Spanish to me, which is something that never happened back when I was visibly more “Muslim-looking” (incidentally, Latino Muslims definitely exist). I had stopped believing long before I ever cut my hair or started showing skin, but I continued to be implicitly understood as a Muslim until those outward signs, though not necessarily tied to religion, were removed.
The racialization of the Muslim identity comes from the simple assumption that no white people are Muslim. The hair under a hijab is never believed to be blonde. Most exasperatingly, because the identity of “Muslim” is so racialized, any deviation from what is considered normatively Muslim becomes, in the eyes of many people, an act of racial betrayal. So ex-Muslims, especially those who choose not to be silent, are commonly considered not only cultural and religious traitors, but also racial traitors, by many within the Muslim community and also frequently those outside it.
Christianity on the whole is not racialized in the same way, which is to say, Christianity does not bear the marking of “non-white” in the way that the Muslim identity does. As such, ex-Christians do not tend to have the experience of racialization through affiliation with a religion, with the possible exception of some historically Black churches. No apparel related to Christianity is racialized, and the Jesus fish on the back of your neighbor’s car does not lead people to think of his race.
2. Many ex-Muslims continue to bear signs of their former religion that would be difficult or impossible to remove or undo.
Many ex-Muslims bear faith-based names (“Muhammad” is the most common first name in the world) or have undergone procedures such as circumcision. When Christian references are explicitly attached to people, the result is not the same. Names like “Elijah” and “Christina” are capable of being seen as secular in a way that “Muhammad” isn’t.
Aside from existential proximity, sheer physical proximity also works to tie ex-Muslims to Muslims in the United States. Because the rest of my family still considers themselves Muslim, I often find myself in mosques or otherwise Muslim congregations. Were someone to attempt to deport all Muslims in the United States today, they would most likely include me.
3. Islam is a minority religion in the United States, and the different sects of Christianity form the majority, which makes the ex-Muslim population very small and diverse.
The American-Muslim community is broken down into smaller communities based on our cultural experiences. I don’t have all the same experiences that many Muslims of Somali background would have. I do not currently speak any amount of Arabic, and I have never so much as met someone from Indonesia. Because certain sets of dynamics are also at play in the Muslim world, even within the experience of being Muslim, we are sometimes placed at odds with each other. A few weeks ago, Iran and Saudi Arabia each accused the other of not being truly Muslim. This is actually a very quotidian part of “the Muslim experience.” We do not all derive our knowledge and experience from the same singular cultural pool. Often, there is simply some amount of overlap, and sometimes it occurs only where Islam does.
This means that ex-Muslims are not only a minority within the Muslim minority, but also a minority within the atheist minority. As a result, the vast majority of secular communities in the United States default to knowledge common to people with Christian backgrounds.
Moreover, Muslims, and by extension ex-Muslims, tend to be immigrants in a much larger proportion than Christians and ex-Christians in the United States. However, as with ex-Christians, there seems to be a larger proportion of LGBTQ+ people who are ex-Muslims than in the general Muslim population. Often, all these identities are inseparably tied together. For instance, a person’s affiliation to Islam could make their status as an immigrant all the more apparent in a way that, say, an ex-Christian immigrant from France would not experience.
Humanists are no strangers to disagreement and difference—as we often reach humanism through very different paths. At the end of the day, we share a deep respect for rationality, the betterment of society, and the progress of humanity as a whole. Yet we must not forget those origins, the effect our appearances have on how others identify us, how they affect our day-to-day experiences, and how they can lead to very different social realities that inform our political stances. The more we learn about each other’s experiences, the more well-considered our perspectives on creating change.