Atheism and Atheists in Egypt: Roots and Transformations

Atheism and Atheists in Egypt: Roots and Transformations

In 1972, Colin Campbell, then a lecturer at the University of York, published a book titled “Toward a Sociology of Irreligion”, dubbing it as “the first serious study of the social phenomenon of the rejection of religion”. In his book, Campbell observed that sociologists have “entirely ignored irreligion”[1].

Although Campbell’s treatise was so vital and effective in presenting a new academic field to researchers, it was an extremely late attempt to study irreligion in Western societies as atheism had actually emerged about two centuries before Campbell’s study.

In comparison to the Egyptian context, we find that the issue of atheism or irreligion has recently established itself in the Egyptian social fabric and surpassed all attempts to avoid it or turn a blind eye to it. The phenomenon of atheism has managed to impose itself on various media, political and religious arenas. Also, there is almost no Egyptian youth who has not heard of an atheist here or there, from his close social circles, to the degree that some have said that “There is an atheist hiding in every Egyptian house”[2]. Although it is a rhetorical statement that is completely untrue, however, it illustrates the horizontal spread of the phenomenon and shows how far it has penetrated the Egyptian youth.

In this context, no field or historical studies addressing the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt have ever emerged so far. Even the study conducted by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) foundation, the oldest political foundation in Germany, in 2016, polling more than 9,000 young people in many Arab countries following the coups d’etat executed in the Arab Spring countries – did not address the issue of atheism, neither in Egypt nor in other countries whether explicitly or implicitly[3].

The survey of the Arab Barometer research network, in cooperation with the BBC, carried out between October 2018 and April 2019, also stated that the proportion of those who describe themselves as “not religious” in Egypt increased from 3% in 2013 to 10% in 2019, but the survey did not determine if those people were believers but “not religious”, or they completely abandoned their belief and became irreligious[4] or atheists[5].

Due to absence of an objective analysis of the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt, atheism has become an enemy attacked by a blind opponent that has not been able to determine the enemy’s location and nature, as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said: “The rejection of a doctrine before understanding it and knowing its content implies blatant ignorance.”[6] The result of this is that media and religious discourse – both official and unofficial – were shocked by the threat that this phenomenon has posed to the religious discourse in general; and accordingly the reaction to the phenomenon was, emotional, violent, reckless and hasty; not based on an objective study or careful reading of the phenomenon.

Therefore, this study faces a serious challenge, which is the absence of a previous study to address the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt; and with the lack of information and documented sources, considering the fact that it is difficult to declare atheism in Muslim-majority societies, research seems more difficult and research questions become more problematic.

Except for the first chapter, which deals with the history of atheism in Egypt before 2000, the study revolves around the axis of the so-called the New Atheism movement. The study traces the effects of this movement in Egypt and its most important advocates and the extent of their influence in the Egyptian arena. The New Atheism movement is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris The New Atheism movement is a contemporary literary movement that advocates atheism and is characterized by great enthusiasm and reliability. The movement that sprung up in 2004, is led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, who in 2004 published his book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (and later in 2006 published his book, “Letter to a Christian Nation”); Daniel Dennett, who published his book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” in 2006; Richard Dawkins who published his book, “The God Delusion” in 2006; and Christopher Hitchens who published his book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” in 2007.

These four authors (later known as the Four Musketeers) established the phenomenon of “New Atheism” or “Militant Atheism” according to some academic literature; and the first to use the term “new atheism” was journalist Gary Wolf in his article “The Church of Non-Believers” published in 2006, highlighting that the new atheism movement that he referred to represented a specific set of ideas that have a set of attributes that distinguish them from previous patterns of atheism in the history of humanity.

In this context, the researcher Abdullah Al-Ajiri believes that the new atheism is characterized by three main aspects, including in the first place, keenness to advocate atheism through the use of various available platforms and means of communication, in addition to its central hostility against the religion of Islam in particular and its fight against Islam with all possible tools, with continued tendency to demonize religion while depicting science in an angelic form that promises to rid humans of the toxins of religions and led them to enjoying the paradise of civilization.[7]

The phenomenon of atheism in Egypt was born from the womb of this emerging movement, its discourse escalated, and a set of prominent figures of this movement emerged through several stages.

Thus, this study aims to explore, understand, and analyze the phenomena of atheism in Egypt, as a social phenomenon related to the New Atheism movement.

It should be noted that during our research we adopt the definition of the social phenomenon introduced by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim as “any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or: which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations”[8].

Chapter 1, titled, “Atheism in Egypt in the Twentieth Century” reviews the history of atheism and atheists in Egypt in the twentieth century, where the movement of atheism started with a set of individual cases in the period before the sixties, and then the major transformation occurred when Communists took the lead of Egyptian public opinion in the sixties and the movement of atheism was closer to being a social phenomenon, at least in the intelligentsia i.e. the intellectual elite, intellectuals and university students, then the wave of atheism subsided in the late seventies until the end of the millennium, where it returned again to narrow individual cases.

Chapter 2, titled, “The New Atheism Infiltrates into Blogs (2000-2010”, addresses the phenomenon of blogs that spread in Egypt with the entry of the new millennium, specifically between 2004 and 2010, monitoring the beginnings of engagement of some Egyptian youth with the New Atheism movement in the West and their adoption of the intellectual foundations of that movement, and their dissemination of these ideas within the Egyptian social fabric, according to available information and documents.

In chapter 3, titled: “The Era of Openness: Atheism between January 25, 2011 to June 30, 2013”, the study monitors development of the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt in coincidence with the development of the margin of freedom and the state of openness and expansion of political horizons and spaces available for atheist movement after the January 25 revolution to the end of 2013. The study also explores the nature and the role of social media in atheists’ communication and advocation of their doctrine, in addition to the effect this period left on young people of tendency to rebellion which later developed to atheism. The study also monitors the most prominent figures who announced their atheism and contributed to its spread through social media platforms or different Egyptian satellite channels, where they adopted a discourse similar to that of the discourse of the New Atheism movement.

Finally, the study focuses in chapter 4, titled: “The Post-Rabaa Atheism: 2013-2020”, on the period from 2013 to 2020 which witnessed a group of unprecedented factors in Egyptian society that led to the rapid growth of the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt, while analyzing the main drivers of atheism in this era.

In chapters 3 and 4, the study relied on more than twenty field interviews with a number of atheists and agnostics in the Egyptian landscape, to support the data we collected and highlight the reality of the current atheistic scene in Egypt.

As mentioned above, the study addresses the phenomenon of atheism in Egyptian society in terms of being an extension of the New Atheism movement, that is, it focuses on Egyptian atheistic discourse and networks that are related to the keywords and foundations of the New Atheism movement only, since this movement represents the mainstream of atheism in Egypt and the world. Therefore, the atheist social networks that are incompatible with this movement are not addressed by this study, such as Marxist or agnostic networks. This does not mean that these networks are not important or that they do not affect the local Egyptian scene, but rather that they are not related to the topic of study, nothing more.

Anyway, this study does not claim it covers the irreligious landscape in Egypt as a whole, but it only provides the primary material in this regard and opens the way for further analysis and exploration of the phenomenon of irreligion in general and atheism in particular in Egypt through several approaches. The study also provides an overview of the social relations network that brings together atheists in “groups”, and at the same time believes there is still a lot for researchers and activists to explore regarding the nature of these networks and the nodes affecting them with money, influence, guidance, ideas, and support.

 To read the full study in Arabic, click here

[1] Colin Campbell, Toward a Sociology of Irreligion, (New York: Heider and Heider, 1972).

[2] A statement by the Egyptian atheist activist Michael Nabil Sanad in 2010.

[3] Jörg Gertel and Ralf Hexel, Coping with Uncertainty: Young People in the Middle East and North Africa, translation, Cairo: Dar El Saki, 2018.

[4] Irreligion includes three main approaches: “deism”, which is the belief in the existence of God without belief in a particular religion or the intervention of God in the universe; “agnosticism”, which is the view that the existence of God is unknown or unknowable; and “atheism”, which is disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God.

[5] The Arab world in seven charts: Are Arabs turning their backs on religion? BBC, 24 June 2019, URL

[6] Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, The Compilation of Imam Al-Ghazali’s Messages, (Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Alami), 7/34.

[7] Abdullah Al-Ajiri, Atheism Militia: Introduction to Understanding the New Atheism, London: Takween Center, 2014.

[8]   Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, translation: Mahmoud Qassem and Mr. Badawi, Alexandria: House of Knowledge University, 1988, pp 50-65.

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