Interview: Alom Shaha and the Apostasy Project 10 August 2013

The 2011 census results showed a marked increase in the number of people identifying themselves as ‘not religious’. 14.1 million people in England and Wales, roughly a quarter of the population, do not consider themselves part of a religious tradition.

It is difficult at this early stage of census results to know how many of these 14.1 million consciously left their religious traditions or positively identify themselves as atheists or how many have become disillusioned with the idea of organised religion. However, a proportion of them are certainly those who have turned their back on previously held religious convictions. The Rationalist Association has launched a new project to support such ‘apostates’ from religious traditions. The Apostasy Project is spearheaded by Alom Shaha, author of The Young Atheists Handbook, and Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist magazine.

Alom Shaha is well placed to lead such a project. He is a British Bangladeshi, raised in South East London. The experiences and questions which led him to atheism are detailed in The Young Atheists Handbook, a successful book that was recently published as far afield as Turkey.

We asked Alom what spurred him on to establish the project. “I’ve worked with Caspar Melville of the Rationalist Association to launch the Apostasy Project. We came up with the idea whilst discussing how we both received emails from people struggling with their lack of, or loss of, faith. Since writing The Young Atheist’s Handbook, I’ve received lots of emails from people all around the world telling me how they wish they could also be open about their lack of belief.”

Some of these emails can be found on the homepage for the Apostasy Project. Alom quotes one in particular from a young Singaporean lady.

“I am living a life full of lies. I lie to my parents and my siblings about my non-existent belief, I lie that I fast, that I pray and that I am trying to bring up my daughter with Islamic values. I am so tired and frustrated of having to hide this massive truth from my family and I just wish I had the courage to deal with it”

The Rationalist Association notes that many atheists are isolated, unable to reach out to other likeminded individuals for support through sometimes challenging and difficult experiences. “A lot of the time, these people were just reaching out to make contact with someone they felt could understand them,” Alom continues “but I was frustrated at feeling that I couldn’t do more to help them. Caspar convinced me that, working with the Rationalist Association, we could perhaps support them in other ways.”

The Apostasy Project was the solution. The website already hosts a number of blog posts from atheists detailing their experiences. When we ask Alom about the biggest challenges faced by the project at the moment, his response is simple, “at the moment, the biggest challenge is to raise enough money to fund the resources we hope to provide.”

The Apostasy Project has so far raised £4,000 of its £20,000 goal. It aims to provide full-time support and resources to atheists and apostates from religious traditions who feel isolated. They aim to provide high quality guides on topics such as ‘coming out’ to family, an email helpline and regular blogs detailing the experiences of other apostates.

The relationship between religious groups and the Apostasy Project is naturally a tense one. Nonetheless, there are a number of blog posts on their website from believers detailing their support for the project. The project aims explicitly mention that it “is not about criticising religion but supporting the right to choose what you believe”. When queried about what the role of religious groups in supporting the project could be, he responded “any religious people who are secure enough in their beliefs to want to help others freely choose theirs; can support the Apostasy Project by telling their communities that the Apostasy Project is available as a resource for anyone having doubts about their faith. As I hope we’ve made clear, the Apostasy Project isn’t about driving people away from religion but rather helping people to come to their own conclusions about what they believe.”

“It’s easy for people like me to be an apostate; it’s one of the privileges of living in a secular society.” He continues, “however, even in the UK, there are people who do not feel able to do this. Many people struggle to come to terms with their loss of faith, for a variety of reasons, and can often feel distressed or traumatised by the experience. I hope the Apostasy Project might provide some of these people with the resources and support to deal with what can be one of the most challenging experiences of their lives.

I think that how we see the world, how we make sense of it, is central to our sense of self. It should be a fundamental human right to be allowed to live a life free of compulsion to adhere to a religion you don’t believe in.”

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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