Atheism Banned: Why?

Paul L. Heck (July 3, 2014)

Atheism has been banned in Saudi Arabia. What does this mean? Are the king’s agents able to get inside the minds of his subjects to determine whether or not they assent to the existence of God? And now Egypt has a national plan in the works to combat the phenomenon of atheism. Is atheism a phenomenon among Arabs? A poll by Gallup suggests that five percent of the populace in Saudi Arabia is atheist. In Egypt atheists have taken to the Internet to explain their viewpoint to the public. What inspires the phenomenon? What inspires the security measures to contain it?

At the heart of the phenomenon is a desire to be free especially from the ignorance that is preached in mosques. The atheists of the Arabs are not enemies of their nations. No less than others, they critique what they see as the detrimental policies of western powers in the region. They want the best for their countries. And they are not enemies of Muslims. But they will not be forced to believe. This is what they hear: “You must obey.” Religion in this sense appears to them as a call to ignorance. The choice as it has been presented to them is between unthinking obedience to God and thinking. They opt for thinking rather than ignorance and belief in God.

Some religious authorities are quick to point to extremism as the cause. The idea is that jihadism turns people off to Islam. How can I belong to a religion that is so easily associated with acts of violence of the most brutal kind? There is some sense to the idea. However, the phenomenon is more than just a question of aversion to faith-based terrorism. Islam calls for liberation from idolatry, but it also places heavy emphasis on obedience. This in the view of atheists only turns Islam into another kind of idolatry. Obey. Don’t think. Obey. Worship. If we all obey, God will be pleased. For the atheists in the region, religion is but a call to ignorance. Thus, to be able to use the mind to think freely about life, it becomes necessary to leave religion.

Does one need to abandon religion in order to think freely? That’s a topic for another time. Here we’re trying to understand the drivers of atheism among the Arabs. It’s not just aversion to faith-based extremism. It’s deeper than that. It is a thirst for freedom, not so much a freedom to do whatever one wants but a freedom to grow as a human being, which requires a break with the demand for unthinking obedience.

We’re also trying to understand the state response to atheism. When one hears atheists on social media, they seem to be thoughtful people even if a bit impatient with their societies. Why have they been tagged as threats—and threats to what exactly? The ban on atheism in Saudi Arabia was preceded by a royal decree (February 2014) that made it a criminal offense to belong to a terrorist organization, to encourage others to do so, or even to express sympathy for such groups. The penalty is imprisonment for no less than three years and up to twenty. The rulers of Saudi Arabia—as those in Europe—are clearly on the alert. They are preparing for the return of jihadists to the homeland after time away fighting apostate regimes in Syria and Iraq. The concern is not unfounded. For jihadists, the regime in Saudi Arabia is also not sufficiently pious. The royal decree speaks of terrorist organizations in terms of “ways” (manāhij) foreign to the nation that ignore “controls on freedom” (ḍawābiṭ al-ḥuriyya) and upset “the general order” of the country. In short, the decree defines jihadist willingness to use violence to redress theo-political grievances as a deviation from Islam. In Saudi Arabia, at least in official rhetoric, jihadists are referred to as “the lost sect.” So jihadism is a problem for Saudi Arabia, but what does that have to do with atheism?

It is unclear why the regime, a month after the ban on terrorist activity, added atheist thought “in any form” to the list of criminal offenses, including expression of doubt about “the fixed beliefs of Islam upon which the nation is founded.” Does the regime really see atheism as a threat as grave to “the general order” of the kingdom as terrorism? There’s a lot to unpack here: There is the viewpoint of the atheists. There is the viewpoint of the vast majority of people in the region who support the death penalty for those who leave Islam. (A poll by Pew puts it at 85% in Egypt.) And there is the viewpoint of the regimes in the region that rule at least ostensibly in the name of Islam–including the secular president in Egypt who claims responsibility for the welfare of Islam. (Americans might have trouble grasping how a secular president could claim responsibility for the welfare of religion. That’s a topic for another article. Suffice it to say here that beliefs can inspire political action against the state, and to counter that potential, the state claims responsibility over the beliefs of the nation. Life-term presidents, secular or not, don’t like competition.)

To focus on Saudi Arabia: Atheism there as elsewhere in the region is a rejection of obedience to God. However, in Saudi Arabia, obedience to God is equated with allegiance (bay‘a) to the holder of power (walī l-amr). The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia does much to foster assent to this theo-political formula even if many quietly reject it. Significantly, jihadists, no less than atheists, reject this equation between obedience to God and allegiance to the regime in power. However, in contrast to atheists, rejection of this theo-political formula does not lead them to reject God. Rather, for them, the solution lies in establishing a state that in contrast to Saudi Arabia strictly implements the laws of Islam. The problem for them is not the combination of allegiance to a ruler and obedience to God. In their eyes, such a pledge of allegiance was given to the Prophet Muhammad and should therefore be given to his successors. It is part of what it means to be a Muslim in their view. However, as far as they are concerned, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who cavort with infidel powers, are clearly not his successors. But once the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad has been declared head of state, Muslims are duty bound to pledge their allegiance to him. In contrast, for atheists, it is obedience to God that is the political problem in Saudi Arabia and not only the particular regime in power.


Qur’an 18:29 (“The Cave”) — And say: “The truth is from your Lord.” So whoever wishes, let him believe; and whoever wishes, let him disbelieve. For the wrongdoers We have prepared a fire whose walls will hem them.

Whatever the nature of atheism in Saudi Arabia, one cannot ignore context. There, atheism and jihadism are ironically two sides to the same coin. This is not to overlook the integrity of either atheist belief or jihadist belief. But one simply cannot ignore the context in Saudi Arabia where obedience to the regime is cast as part of being obedient to God. Both atheists and jihadists reject this theo-political formula. It thus makes sense at least in the eyes of the rulers to list atheism along with terrorism as crimes against the nation. This seems odd to those reared in the West where atheism, while offensive to some, has become something that believers in God increasingly yawn at. They’re there. So what. Let them believe what they want as long as they follow the laws of the land. Of course, atheists have a similar attitude towards theists in the West. They’re there. So what. Let them believe what they want as long as the follow the laws of the land. However, in Saudi Arabia, things are more complicated. The laws of God are the laws of the land. Reject one, and you reject the other. This makes atheism a grave threat to the regime in Saudi Arabia.

Atheism is a grave threat to the regime in Saudi Arabia though not necessarily to individuals in society. Let’s get some perspective on what this means. As suggested above, atheism among Arabs is about personal expression, freedom to think for oneself, freedom to grow, and freedom to be undefined by anything but what one defines oneself to be. Atheism is closely linked to a desire for freedom of conscience. Must human freedom of conscience necessarily be defined over against belief in God? That’s a topic for another time. At least in the context of Saudi Arabia (and atheism no less than theism is always shaped by its context), freedom of conscience, whether to reject obedience to God or to attack a state seen as godless, is a problem for a regime that bases its right to rule on its readiness to enforce God’s laws. It is for this reason that the royal decree referred to above spoke of the need for “controls on freedom.” Freedom, whether to be atheist or jihadist, is a problem for the regime.

Let’s get some more perspective. In 1649 Samuel Rutherford, a leading voice within Scottish Presbyterianism, wrote A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. Note that: a treatise against freedom of conscience. This notable reformist was no friend of freedom of the kind under discussion here. Why? He linked the divine favor enjoyed by the nation to the beliefs its people held. As he saw it, the toleration of incorrect belief only resulted in a plurality of truth claims. Could truth be whatever people believed it to be? The plurality of beliefs led to the loss of the singularity of truth, which in the case of Rutherford was a truth found in the Bible. In his view, biblical truth, once defined, was not something individuals could choose to accept or reject. For him, the welfare of Scotland was at stake, and by welfare he did not mean political welfare exclusively. At stake was the welfare of its covenant with God. In his eyes, those nations elected by God needed to demonstrate the divine favor they enjoyed by living according to the truth. Indeed, the political welfare of the nation flowed from the integrity of its covenant with God. The idea of tolerating opinions, errors, heresies, and blasphemies was thus out of the question, and this meant that freedom of conscience, too, had no place in a covenanted nation.

This is not to compare Rutherford with the ban on atheism in Saudi Arabia. His goal was not to protect those in power from dissent but rather to preserve the singularity of biblical truth. But he did not want any contenders for such truth. In some ways, his thinking stands between that of the regime in Saudi Arabia and those who oppose it for its failure to rule according to Islam’s covenant with God (on account of their alliances with infidels, their failure to implement shari‘a strictly, their disregard of justice, and the profligacy of their personal lives). If jihadists were to take over in Saudi Arabia, they would not tolerate freedom of conscience any more than the current regime, perhaps even less so, but would demand obedience to God in the form of a socio-political program. (Rutherford spoke of church government.) The point: What we’re seeing in the region today echoes the tumultuous seventeenth century in the British Isles. Indeed, the Kingdom of England was for a time made a republic following the execution of Charles I in 1649. Not unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Charles claimed a divine right to rule and refused to share power. His opponents hoped for a biblical commonwealth that would both limit the power of the ruler and ensure the integrity of the covenant with God. (The rulers of Saudi Arabia have good reason to fear those who argue for limits on power in the name of Islam!) Once the monarchy was restored in 1661, Rutherford was charged with high treason for his writings on limited government. He would die in 1661 before action was taken.

All of this played out in New England in what were known as election sermons. At election time, it was the custom for a leading preacher to deliver a sermon calling for adherence to “the Puritan errand,” namely, the mission to the biblical covenant with God. In one such sermon, given in 1690, Cotton Mather spoke of “liberty of conscience” as a threat to the singularity of truth. Can one draw a comparison to Saudi Arabia? There are similarities, but also differences. In both New England then and Saudi Arabia today, society is defined in terms of its covenant with God. This makes church government of a kind necessary to ensure that the covenant has dominion over society. In colonial New England, the clergy were seen as counselors to those in power—and sometimes as critics—in the image of the prophets of Ancient Israel: the keepers of the covenant. This rings true in Saudi Arabia today. However, those in power in New England were elected to rule. Those in Saudi Arabia are not. The electorate of New England had a direct say in the welfare of their biblical commonwealth. This is not the case in Saudi Arabia.

There is one point that is worth drawing out. The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be revoked in 1684. Thereafter, the governor became a royal appointee with power of veto rather, no longer elected by the colony’s representatives as he had been before revocation of the charter. As a result, the leading clergy took on a new role. They would no longer be simply the keepers of the covenant. They became negotiators of the public good in terms of the colony’s relation with the monarchical ruler in England. It was not just a matter of ensuring local adherence to the covenant with God. They had to be alert to the king’s policies. Did they work to the benefit of the colony? Could people in the colony be made to see this? Such a shift let its impact on the sermons of the day. They were increasingly geared to questions of the political welfare of the colony, less so to the commitment of the commonwealth to its covenant with God.

This role is not one that the clergy in Saudi Arabia has taken on up to this point—at least not the clergy who make up the committee of senior scholars: the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. They might offer discrete counsel to the rulers of Saudi Arabia. But what they have in mind first and foremost is not the political rights of the king’s subjects. Their primary concern is adherence to the nation’s covenant with God. The goal is to ensure that people worship God correctly, not to negotiate on behalf of their political welfare.

To be sure, shari‘a spells out individual rights and duties in relation to other individuals. If you and I enter into a business partnership or a marital contract, we have rights and duties in relation to one another. However, shari‘a is less clear about the political rights of individuals and even society as a whole in relation to the ruler. As a result, in Saudi Arabia today, there is no organic relation between ruler and ruled. The only commitment the rulers have is to Islam. That is where they get their legitimacy—from the religious establishment and not from the people. (This is why opponents of the regime, as part of their critique of its failures, often cast suspicion on its commitment to Islam.) And the religious establishment has not yet shown any clear interest in negotiating on behalf of the political welfare of the king’s subjects.

One cannot deny religious voices a place in the public space. It is within religious communities that enduring values are fostered in the hearts of believers. And these communities have a lot to offer society as bearers of values of benefit to society. The world would undeniably be a darker place without these communities and their commitment to be of service to society in so many ways. But the above discussion raises many questions about the relation of religion to power and the ways in which a society can perceive atheism to be a threat. Why is this so? To be sure, rulers are happy to cast all dissent as a threat to society. But there is a deeper issue. Samuel Rutherford brooked no room for liberty of conscience. The covenant was at stake.

It’s a good thing to be in covenant with God. I can recommend it as a compelling adventure that has inspired me to want to do great things beyond any personal ambitions. And it will continue to inspire the way I act and speak in public. I wonder why some are not interested in exploring the adventure of covenant, but I recognize the importance of the question: What does the covenant have to do with the political welfare of my country? And what does this mean for fellow citizens who find the idea of a covenant with God oppressive. In the end, questions such as these are as relevant in America as they are in the Middle East.

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