In this country known as the cradle of Islam, where religion gives legitimacy to the government and state-appointed clerics set rules for social behavior, a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists.
The evidence is anecdotal, but persistent.
“I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me,” said Fahad AlFahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist. “Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me.”
A Saudi journalist in Riyadh has observed the same trend.
“The idea of being irreligious and even atheist is spreading because of the contradiction between what Islamists say and what they do,” he said.
The perception that atheism is no longer a taboo subject — at least two Gulf-produced television talk shows recently discussed it — may explain why the government has made talk of atheism a terrorist offense. The March 7 decree from the Ministry of Interior prohibited, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
The number of people willing to admit to friends to being atheist or to declare themselves atheist online, usually under aliases, is certainly not big enough to be a movement or threaten the government. A 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International of about 500 Saudis found that 5 percent described themselves as “convinced atheist.” This was well below the global average of 13 percent.
But the greater willingness to privately admit to being atheist reflects a general disillusionment with religion and what one Saudi called “a growing notion” that religion is being misused by authorities to control the population. This disillusionment is seen in a number of ways, ranging from ignoring clerical pronouncements to challenging and even mocking religious leaders on social media.
Often the very best argument for persuading people to embrace doubt is the observation that religious beliefs are devoid of any testable verifiable evidence, Joseph Smith might indeed claim a revelation via golden tablets, and tens of millions of Mormons truly believe it all to be true, but they have no evidential reason for doing so.
The lack of evidence is however not the sole trigger for doubt, because another is the behaviour of those that believe. Saudi Arabia is a nation where the track record for human rights is utterly appalling in so many different ways, to be specific …
- No rights for women
- No political rights
- No freedom of belief
- No LBGT rights
- No freedom of the press
- No Justice
We also live in an Internet age where all idea are out in the open, and so when faced with claims that they are the keepers of true Islam and hold the highest moral standards, yet behave towards others in an utterly abhorrent manner, then that can indeed initiate many to have serious doubts, and that is exactly what we are seeing within Saudi Arabia under the covers.
25% are not religious
Yes a few are indeed openly (to their friends) embracing doubt, but as many as 25% will, when polled in 2012, admit to being non-religious.
Bubbling away under the Wahabi Burka is a considerable degree of doubt and discontent, and so for the moment the House of Saudi is throwing huge quantities of oil money at the population to pacify them, but that right now cannot be sustained, they are running a huge budget deficit because the oil prices are way too low for them to be able to sustain their current levels of expenditure.
Catalyst For Change
It is perhaps rather ironic that oil, the commodity that has given then such power, will also be the cause of their downfall. To continue to be viable they need oil to be $105 per barrel, but right now the price is way below that and will in all probability remain low because of the rise of new technologies (hydraulic fracking and shale oil).
They have nothing else to fall back upon and have since the 1970s blown hundreds of billions of their petrol-dollars promoting their extreme variation of belief across the planet.
There is an end-game in sight here, as long as the oil price remains low then political change within Saudi Arabia is not simply a possibility, it is an inevitability.