I was born and raised in a moderately conservative country. My family is not strictly religious, but they are quite devout. My parents put me in an Islamic school when I was six up until I was fifteen. Nine years of indoctrination didn’t do enough to make me a believer; I’ve been an atheist since my early 20s—even though I’m still in the closet.
I met Paul, my boyfriend of almost two years now, in my hometown. He is not the first Caucasian/European guy I dated, although he’s the first one that I have a serious relationship with. He came from a non-religious, liberal family—like most Western European people do. As a fellow atheist, it is nice to have someone to bounce off ideas about living as atheists in a religious country. He moved to Asia only a few months before we met, so he is now quite familiar with the idea of being unable to freely express ourselves and live our life the way we want it.
Around the world, the number of people losing their faith in God or the supreme entities is increasing. But in most parts of the world, people are still uncomfortable with atheism. Being an atheist is still shunned and shamed—if not persecuted. Up until now, fortunately, we haven’t received any backlash from anyone that knows we’re atheists.
We do, however, have to constantly adjust ourselves and our lives to be able to live peacefully within a religious community. Up until a few years ago when I started traveling abroad, I didn’t realize that the ‘normal’ occurrences I found at home were not in any way ‘normal’ elsewhere.
7 things we encounter as atheist in a religious country
Based on our experience living in a conservative, religious country, we round up a few things happening in our everyday life:
1. People automatically assume that you belong to one of the major religions.
The assumption is reinforced because the government puts the religion column in your national ID. It’s mandatory and you cannot choose to opt-out. For Paul, of course, this feels scary and can be used as a loophole to attack you if you’re a minority (which is true in certain conditions). In my ID, my religion column stated Islam because that’s my family’s religion, of course. Paul was—and still is—terrified about the consequences of this. What if someone checks my identity and finds that Paul and I are not married? Will it be a problem? Can they somehow criminalize us for that?
2. They casually ask what religion you are, even if it’s the first time you met each other.
It’s a form of ice breaking, really. When you meet someone for the first time, it is not uncommon for them to ask you what religion you are. Most of the time, their question didn’t come from a foul intention. They simply want to know if they can ask you to join their congregations, if they can celebrate similar events with you, if they can send you prayer, or ask if you can send them one.
3. You see religious symbols and rituals everywhere.
You will get used to having the forced alarm in a form of call-for-prayers from the mosque at around 4 or 5 am, especially if you live in a densely Muslim-populated area. As an alternative, you can move to an area where there are not that many Muslims, or you can choose to invest in a good earplug. A lot of women wear hijab everywhere; it’s not only for them to feel like they belong to their community, but also as a form of fashion expression. Some Christians wear cross symbols too, although it’s not as common. In other areas where there are more Hindus or Buddhist people, you will encounter temples and other religious attributes. It’s part of their identity and most of the time they are not disinclined to show it.
4. Everyone prays for everything.
People start and end their day with praying, and it’s not only limited to personal activity in their own private space. If you attend a public event, especially a formal one, you can expect it to be opened with a prayer. Since Muslims are the majority here, anyone—regardless of their actual religion—will say Assalamualaikum (or other forms of Islamic common phrases) to anyone they met. When people react to something bad happening, they will start praying. They will ask for you to pray for them for good luck. It can be overwhelming at times because people expect you to be religious and involved in these types of situations.
5. LGBTQ is a big no-no.
Being both atheist and LGBTQ+? Well, good luck being you! The best way to approach it is to keep it low and not attract unnecessary attention to yourself.
6. People will ask why you’re not married yet.
Religious people think highly of marriage since it is a part of their mandate in this world. It is seen as an obligation that they have to do to be fulfilled or complete as a person. They won’t shy away from asking you this type of question in a social setting—especially if they realize that you’re no longer in the prime age of marriage a.k.a below thirty. And yes, they will pray for you out of sympathy because they think that single people are less happy about their life.
7. Food choices can be quite a hassle.
In some areas, you can’t eat beef, in other areas you can’t eat pork. It is also common to see signs in front of restaurants to indicate whether the place is halal or not. In certain areas, it is considered essentials for the restaurant owners to put in disclaimers if their menu contains pork or lards. From what we have learned, chicken is almost always available everywhere because no religion prohibit eating it.