Secularism Hits the Arab World

Millions are walking away from religion.

Posted Jul 03, 2019

Koldunova Anna/Shutterstock
Source: Koldunova Anna/Shutterstock

In most parts of the world, religion is dying.

In North America, millions of people are walking away from the church, millions more are eschewing religious identification, and numerous surveys are recording unprecedentedly high levels of secularity. In Latin American, the total percentage of non-religious individuals has more than doubled in recent years, from 8% in 2014 to almost 20% today. In Europe, religion is truly on the ropes, with a majority of British and Scandinavian populations no longer being religious, and atheism surging in the NetherlandsFrance, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Estonia.

Indeed, according to European Social Survey data from 2018, nonreligious individuals outnumber religious individuals in over half of the 22 countries surveyed. Religion is also withering throughout Asia; rates of religious belief, ritual engagement, temple activity, and identification are way down, particularly in South Korea and Japan.

One major part of planet Earth, however, that hasn’t seen such a dramatic rise in secularity is sub-Saharan Africa. Another is the Arab world. But it now looks like religion is fading in the latter—and markedly so.

According to a new study recently released by the Arab Barometer Research Network and the BBC—a large, in-depth study covering 10 countries (plus the Palestinian territories) and involving responses from over 25,000 people—secularism is on the rise throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

For example, back in 2013, around 14% of Tunisians said they were nonreligious, but that is up to around 31% today. In Libya, it was around 11% five years ago, but is up to 25% today. In Algeria, from 8% up to around 13%. In Morocco, from around 4% up to around 13%. In Egypt, from around 3% up to around 10% today. In Lebanon—the most secular nation of them all—less than 25% of the population identifies as religious.

We’ve never seen such high rates of secularity in the Arab world, and all of these percentages translate into real numbers: tens of millions of contemporary Arabs declaring a secular identity.

Such a dramatic rise of secularism in the Arab world is noteworthy for many reasons, one being that within the Arab-Muslim world, one finds aggressive anti-atheist legislation and pervasive anti-secular culture. For example, in Egypt, it is illegal to say anything against religion, and doing so can land one in prison for up to five years; leading Egyptian politicians have lately been pushing to outlaw atheism outright, declaring it a criminal offense.

In the Palestinian territories, secularists face imprisonment and torture. In Tunisia, atheism is a taboo topic. And yet, despite this, secularity has been on the rise in all three nations—and so many other Arab nations—in the last five years; even in the face of legal danger and cultural ostracism, more and more people are coming out as nonreligious. This is amazing.

Of course, while the rising rates of professed secularity in the Arab-Muslim world are new, the roots of such secularism run deep. Very deep. Many centuries deep. Despite the fact that many people erroneously associate Islam with nothing but religious fundamentalism, the historical fact is that skepticism, rationalism, and humanism have been long-entrenched within Arabic-Muslim history.

For example, there was Ibn al-Rawandi, a 9th-century skeptic who rejected Islam and advocated free thought. The critical rationalist Muhammad Al-Warraq, also of the 9th century, doubted the very existence of Allah, was dubious of religious revelation, and was skeptical of religious prophets. There was the freethinking, antireligious assertions of Muhammad al-Razi, of the early 10th century,  who doubted the divine nature of the Qu’ran, doubted that Muhammad was a prophet, and was overt in his criticisms of religion, working hard to advance the sciences of physics, chemistry, and medicine.

And then there were the soothingly secular, inspirational humanist affirmations of Omar Khayyam of the 11th century, who waxed poetically about the all-too-natural, all-too mysterious, and yet compelling beauty of existence; “Men talk of heaven,” he noted, yet “there is no heaven but here.” And, of course, there was the towering intellectual figure of Averroes of the 12th century, considered a founding father of nascent secular philosophy. His skepticism was so pronounced, that the poet Dante included him by name in his Divine Comedy as one of those prominent heretics who dwells in hell.

These individuals may not be well known to the Western world, and they may be castigated as nothing but heretics and blasphemers by some Muslims. But for an ever-growing number of Arabs, they planted seeds of secular humanism that are flowering in abundance today.