Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Teaching in Egypt (14): Let's talk about atheism


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:

"[...] there are many narratives that predict the failure of the Islamist project. In Egypt, Islamists face a weak economy, high unemployment, a collapsing public health sector, a power struggle with the ruling military and exaggerated post-revolutionary aspirations. After an embarrassing performance in Parliament , the Islamist majority have encountered mounting public criticism, internal defections and a deteriorating legitimacy. One  report has already found that 45% of those who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party candidates would not do so again."

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. 


  1. Why do you assume it is something so desirable as to lament the fact it "has a long way to go"?

    1. I just typed a reply and then it disappeared...

      Anyway: I'm not saying atheism is 'desirable', I just think it is sad that after reading the article, which clearly states it is on the rise in Egypt, my students are still denying its existence. Their lack of respect for other points of view and their inability to think critically worry me.

  2. The funny thing is that in the Arab (Islamic)world atheism is very old dating back to the 2nd century Hegri also considered as the Golden Century off Islam but it was of a very special character. Most Arab atheists didn't deny the existence of God but denied religions and prophets. Often called "Zandaqa" they were will tolerated and contributed a lot to the cultural, scientific, and philosophical Heritage of the ARAB/ISLAMIC civilization. They included EL-Rawindi, El-Razi (the physician) and El-Maari. They argued that if God existed then He must be Just. Being Just is in contradiction with sending a prophet to a certain people preferring to others, and was an instigator of religious strife between tribes and peoples. They laughed at all Ibrahimic religions obsession with body parts and their excretions and preference of the right side of the body over the left. They denied that ancestors could have more knowledge than later generations. They gave Mankind 2 important traits: 1.skepticism and, 2.trial and error as base of knowledge.

  3. Oh my god =D Where are you teaching in Egypt ?