Did Religious Extremism drive 2 Million Egyptian youth to Unbelief?

(By Juan Cole)

Egyptian journalist Hilmy al-Namnam said last fall that some researchers had concluded that there were 2 million Egyptian atheists. He blamed the rapid increase in unbelief among young people on the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the hypocrisy of television preachers. Educated young women are especially dismayed at the discourse on women apparent in clerical sermons. He wrote:

“A number of young people went to the Constitution Drafting Committee and asked to meet with some of its members. These young people called themselves “atheists,” but, unfortunately, none of the committee members met with them, to find out what their ideas were, what were their aspirations and desires with regard to the constitution, which was then being amended. Perhaps time constraints prevented the Commission from meeting these potential interviewees, or perhaps they declined because of the charges of Sheikh Yasser Burhamy that the drafters opposed the Islamic project.

Apparently it was the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood [June 2012-July 2013] that caused these groups of young people to pop up and which increased their numbers. It was suggested that I meet with a number of them last April, and I heard then from a young woman who says that she forsook religion, and when I discussed with them I did not find exactly what you could call a atheism, but a great deal of anger and protest at prevailing actions and behavior, and even many believers will share their anger and protest at the glaring contradiction between words and deeds of some of the preachers on television.”

Sociologist Mansour Moaddel has found that Egyptians wanting to see Islamic law implemented as the law of the land have fallen to 28% from a majority a decade ago, and half of Egyptians now say they see themselves as Egyptian nationals first and Muslims second.

Related video:

BBC: Atheism in Egypt: The challenges facing non-believers?

13 Responses

  1. The internal inconsistencies of religion, when compared to reason, are causing humanity to embrace a “new” “religion:” human rights. It is of course not “new,” dating from Jefferson and before, and it is not a “religion,” because it is based on mutual respect, not doctrine.

    • Jefferson based his notions on Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine was a stay-maker (corset maker) from East Anglia.

    • Nicely said. It’s a tough sell. And the more deeply religious a country is, the tougher to sell mutual respect based governance.

    • Where does the idea that “mutual respect” should triumph come from, if not doctrine?

      Look at the beginning of the Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” How is that not doctrine, a statement that we believe in these principles because these are the principles we believe in, and believing in them is what defines who are?

      None of this is to disparage those beliefs, but really, do you think it was “self-evident” in the 1770s that a 100th generation peasant farmer or a Native American was born equal to an English nobleman expertly playing his harpsichord in his study?

      The vision of equality and human rights that came out of the Enlightenment was just as much of a contingent, culturally-bound doctrine as the vision of divine right and innate ‘place in the world’ that it succeeded.

      • Kant showed that this moral ‘doctrine’ can be solely motivated by reason, i.e. it makes for functioning societies.

        If you want to go further than that you can explore how social mores and altruism convey evolutionary benefits to social animals.

        The divine is indeed entirely unnecessary.

  2. What is the evidence that the 1 year rule of the MB or the hypocrisy of TV preachers caused atheism?
    What poll produced the 2 million number and what was the methodology used?

  3. It is unfortunate that our political science has not been encouraged to develop quantitative models of the social processes which drive acceptance of modern institutions. We might have a better idea of the processes involving stability under secular government which must precede viable democracy. If the nation cared to propagate democracy as politicians claim, it would long ago have found the need to know what actions lead where, and would have predicted that its mideast wars would lead to fundamentalist insurgency, rather than proceeding blindly with groupthink and vague handwaving at the highest levels..
    But then such careful foreign policy analysis would reveal that we have a stable plutocracy ourselves rather than democracy. And indeed we have struggled to bring such Democracy(R) to all who will buy it, and to exclude the real thing.

  4. The same is destined to happen to militarism and the military, as it becomes overbearing.

  5. The extensive media campaign demonizing the Brotherhood is a more logical explanation.

    Also, suppose one wants to advance in their careers – or avoid surviellance by the security state – in the current environment, isn’t claiming to be secular the way to accomplish those goals?

  6. Similar thing in iraq, noted in this website i believe, where the countries issues were making young people doubtful of the existence of a god.

  7. It should also be pointed out that some of the strongest objectors to “political” Islam are religious Egyptians.

  8. I’ve never thought of the Egyptians as being a particularly religious people, at least from my perspective.
    I remember when working in the UAE with some Egyptian lads working under me during the month of Ramadan, they not only sneakingly drank bottles of Cola during the day to avoid being seen by devout local Muslims, but would come around to our villa at night asking to purchase a bottle or two of spirits, which were denied them by the authorities.
    We, as non-Muslim foreign workers, were allowed a generous quota per month of alcohol to purchase from a government controlled liquor store run by a trusted Scottish entity of which I forget the name.
    But some desperate expat Brit must have mentioned to the local Sheik that gin and hot climates go together.
    So, I don’t know if my experience is indicative of today’s Egyptian youth, but it certainly surprised me.

  9. Brian has put a magnifying glass very honestly. I am not surprised at all since this social behavior is found in my neighborhood in Pakistan too. Blaming one or the other won’t bring any empirically proved evidence so please, people, don’t push your ideology for atheism or for religion… just try to understand… and embrace, if possible. That will bring out a resolve… cool your minds!

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