The Humanist Dilemma: How Can I Avoid Wasting Time on Daily Prayers without Hurting My Muslim Mum?

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Don’t Want To Pray Five Times A Day: I’m a Muslim, nearly sixteen, and I live in quite a religious family in the UK. No one in my family has ever become an atheist. My family is also very traditional and I am a polar opposite to them. Islam requires me to pray five times a day and fast, things I don’t want to do because I don’t believe in them. They’re a waste of time to a nonbeliever and will affect my exams because they can take as long as half an hour each time. I need to find a suitable way to get past this situation but I’m surely going to get disowned if I tell my parents. I also feel like I’m going to hurt my mum and she’s going to feel like she’s wasted her life on me. What do I do?

-Secret Infidel


Dear Infidel,

In a way, your situation as a Muslim is really not so different from that of someone in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish or Fundamentalist Christian family. It’s extremely difficult and perhaps even dangerous to express your dissent while living with your religious family and depending upon them for the necessities in life.

If, as you say, you will surely be disowned for speaking up, don’t do it until you are able to survive on your own. Instead, focus on getting the education and experience you need to live independently. Continue to go through the motions of the multiple daily prayers (perhaps think of it as meditation, or spend the time mentally reviewing material for your exams) and the required fasting (which may have some health benefits, if that’s any consolation). Here’s an article on how other young Muslims deal with fasting and praying.  Also, you might want to check with your school about whether they can make special accommodations for your religious practices, making it a bit easier for you to fast and pray and still do well in your studies.

Just about every young person (as well as adult) has to do stuff they hate that takes up precious time and energy, whether it’s religious services, chores, taking care of younger siblings or older relatives, practicing an instrument or sport they don’t enjoy, etc. I suspect many people skim through prayers and cheat on fasting, which isn’t a sin if you aren’t a believer, and doesn’t hurt anyone if you don’t get caught. I’m not advocating, just offering some “food” for thought.

You sound like a very bright and capable young person, and learning how to manage your time and energy to overcome these obstacles will serve you well throughout your life. As soon as possible, perhaps you can arrange to live in a dormitory at college, or get a job away from home or at least one that enables you to save up for future independent living.

For now, do your best to continue performing your religious requirements minimally but adequately enough to avoid making waves until you can make a getaway. Then, when you have attained the wherewithal to live apart from your family and religious community, strike out on your own (even if that means having roommates and a very tight budget). Once you’ve done that, you can decide whether it’s important to inform your family of your non-belief. Weigh what is to be gained vs. lost. If your goal is to keep the peace and avoid deeply disappointing your mother, it may be best to just go about your business without a confession. If your family wants to know, they may ask. But they may not want to know, no matter how obvious it becomes that you have become a non-believer.

If they do ask, be prepared either to tell them (in a confident, matter-of-fact manner) or to deflect if that’s possible and if that’s what you want. Recognize that there’s no way to break this news without breaking hearts, and there’s no way to know how intense and disruptive the reaction might be. Which is why you have to be sure you are ready to make a clean and total break if it comes to that.

At the same time you are preparing to become independent, try also to form a support network. Join secular groups—anything that interests you, whether it’s sports or chess or book clubs or community service—so that you cultivate friends who are outside your religious community. Look also for online connections like the one you found here, so that you can find others who will help you grapple with your issues and strengthen the convictions that replace your religious teachings. If you are able to identify one or two current friends who are also disenchanted with their Muslim background, that would be great—as long as all of you can keep your views hidden as long as necessary. There are also websites specifically for Muslims who have left the faith which may be particularly helpful in your journey.