A friend recently wrote an interesting article on atheism in Egypt. Always on the lookout for interesting subjects to discuss in class, I decided to read it with my level 5 students.
Egyptian culture is drenched in religion, so atheism is a very sensitive topic. I was fully aware of that before presenting them with the article, but I hadn't anticipated their reaction would be this strong.
One student tried to convince me that talking about atheism could get us arrested, which in turn really worried another student. "I think you're mistaken", I said. "Egypt has a law against blasphemy. That means you can't insult religion. Talking about alternatives to religion, which is what we are doing when we are discussing atheism, is most definitely not blasphemy."
Now, this particular student is of the 'the sky is green, because I say it is' variety. He once tried to argue that Melbourne is the capital of Australia (no). Because, you know, 'he had read that somewhere'. He also claimed Celine Dion is from England (nope) and Margaret Thatcher is dead (not yet!). He is a walking collection of fallacies and beyond stubborn at that.
It took me about 15 minutes and googling Egypt's blasphemy law to convince him it was ok to both read and discuss this article.
Reading the actual article took up almost the whole class, because it was chock full of words they had never heard of, such as 'secularism', 'dogma', 'taboo' and 'legislation'.
When we were finally done, and I asked them for their opinion, mister know-it-all was of course the first to speak up. "This must be written by a Westerner. An Egyptian would never have such ridiculous thoughts."
When I told him that the article was indeed written by an Egyptian, his response was simply: 'That can't be. Are you sure?'.
"Trust me, I know the guy. 100% Egyptian. He lives in Cairo", I reassured him.
"Well, he is against Islam. He can't be a very religious man", he retorted. "Is he an atheist?"
"I'm not sure, but I don't think so. In any case, I do know he knows a lot about the Quran, and he is very respectful towards everybody, regardless of their religion" I replied.
"But what makes you think he is against Islam?", I wondered.
"He is very critical of the Muslim Brotherhood", my student said. "He is not very objective about them, so he must be against Islam." He quoted the paragraph below:
Another student interjected. "Those are simply facts the author is stating. The Muslim Brotherhood has not done very well in parliament, we all know that, and many people are disappointed with them. That has been all over the news these past few weeks."
"I do agree with his comments on the church", mister know-it-all continued, totally ignoring the other student's comment, quoting the sentence below:
"The Catholic Church’s sex scandals have no doubt also contributed to the disillusionment with contemporary institutional religion in the west."
"I think you are projecting your own thoughts about atheism and religion on the article too much. Remember I talked to you guys about critical thinking? Try and apply some of that to this article instead of just reading what you want to read into it."
I got a very puzzled look in return. "What do you mean?"
"Criticising religion doesn't make you an atheist. Neither does stating facts."
"Well, I don't know about those facts...", he murmured.
"I do", I responded curtly, cutting off what would no doubt become another one of his litanies of fallacies.
"Anyway, there is no such thing as atheism in Egypt", mister know-it-all decided. To my surprise, all other students agreed.
This left me baffled. "What did we just spent two hours reading then? You guys got absolutely nothing out of this?"
They all looked at me confused. "We learned a bunch of interesting new words", a student cheerfully replied, repeating the definition I had just given them for 'dogma'.
"No need to have an opinion on something that doesn't exist", the only female in class concluded.
Before I could even begin to argue the questionability of that statement, my next class came barging in. With the speed of light, my other students disappeared out of the classroom, marking the end of our discussion.
It seems atheism has a long way to go in Egypt.