Despite tough laws, atheism is growing in Saudi Arabia

Atheism or the God Delusion is the fastest growing ‘creed’ among youth in Saudi Arabia. More than 3 million copies of Richard Dawkins’s Bible of Atheism were downloaded in the Islamic country, where, if caught by the brutal religious police they could face death sentence for apostasy.

According to a 2012 survey by a reputed international agency, 5 per cent of its citizens described themselves as ‘convinced atheist’.  Though many are not forthcoming, the number of visitors to some atheist websites is on the rise.

According to a Saudi national who doesn’t want to identify herself, people do not want to open up about their faith status but the number of atheists is growing. “There is a kind of ‘Islam fatigue’ among youths who cannot adjust with the outdated religious doctrines and dogmatic belief systems. Many have access to latest scientific developments happening around the world, thanks to the expansion of information technology. The caged people when get freedom, they don’t wish to return to the cage. Some are discovering merits in Hinduism or ancient faiths of Arabia which were erased from the face during the triumphant march of Islam,” she said.

The atheists have high hopes in Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who wants to present a more tolerant and moderate face of the country to the world. The government’s decision to lift the ban on women driving, relaxation on full-veil dress code was welcomed by the youth, especially women.

However, atheism continues to be one of the major taboos in the country. In 2014, the government had announced that anyone encouraging ‘atheist thought in any form’ would face persecution. The administration fears liberal thoughts also. Raif Badawi, the founder of Free Saudi Liberals blog, was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” in 2013. A mentally challenged youth was sentenced to death for tearing the Quran and hitting it with his chappals in an online video. A Palestinian poet whose sentence for renouncing Islam was reduced from the death penalty to eight years in prison, 800 lashes, a fine of 50,000 Saudi riyals, and a public apology.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of atheists in Saudi Arabia. According to a 2012 survey by a reputed international agency, 5 per cent of its citizens described themselves as ‘convinced atheist’.  Though many are not forthcoming, the number of visitors to some atheist websites is on the rise. There are several covert social media groups of atheists which give them platforms to the members to share their views, though it is a risky affair as online content is strictly monitored by the government. From such groups, it is evident that more and more Saudi citizens are challenging the country’s religious authorities.

Despite threats and restrictions, atheism is growing in neighbouring Islamic countries in the Gulf though it is a criminal offense punishable by death. One of the