Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers

May 23, 2014

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Women talked about “coming out,” being open with their families, leaving “the closet” at a conference here this month. But the topic was not sexuality. Instead, the women, attending the third Women in Secularism conference were talking about being atheists. Some grew up Catholic, some Jewish, some Protestant — but nearly all described journeys of acknowledging atheism first to themselves, then to loved ones. Going public was a last, often painful, step.

Anyone leaving a close-knit belief-based community risks parental disappointment, rejection by friends and relatives, and charges of self-loathing. The process can be especially difficult and isolating for women who have grown up Muslim, who are sometimes accused of trying to assimilate into a Western culture that despises them.

“It was incredibly painful,” Heina Dadabhoy, 26, said during a discussion called “Women Leaving Religion,” which also featured three former Christians and one formerly observant Jew, the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “My entire life, my identity, was being a good Muslim woman.”

Ms. Dadabhoy, a web developer who lives in Orange County, Calif., and who often gives talks about leaving Islam, said the hardest part of the process was opening up to her family.

There are few role models for former Muslims, and although the religion’s history contains some notable skeptics, very few of them are women. Today, Muslim feminists like Irshad Manji and Amina Wadud advocate more liberal attitudes toward women in Islam, but neither has left the faith. And many atheists resist identifying with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American (by way of the Netherlands) whose vehement criticism of Islam is seen, even by many other atheists, as harsh.

One group that seeks to bridge that gap is Ex-Muslims of North America, which had an information table in the exhibition hall. Members of the group, founded last year in Washington and Toronto, recognize that their efforts might seem radical to some, and take precautions when admitting new members.