17 November 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 November 2005

I’m not a religious believer and haven’t been for a very long time — I think I must have come to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist when I was 12 or 13, and nothing has happened since to make me change my mind.

It’s not a big thing in my family. Neither of my parents was at all religious, and the only serious believers among my close relations were my grandmother (who was married to an avowed militant atheist) and one aunt. My school was more of a problem: a minor public school, it insisted on compulsory chapel and RE, and during my early teenage years I was in regular small-scale trouble for talking during chapel (for which the penalty was cleaning the first XV’s rugby boots) and for being rude to teachers in RE lessons.

What the hell: by the time I was 15, the school had relaxed about compulsory chapel and RE and much else besides — in the sixth form one liberal teacher even put on a showing of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If ..., in which Malcolm McDowell leads an armed uprising in an authoritarian C of E boarding school — and since then the only times I’ve suffered for my unbelief have been those occasions when I’ve had to sit through religious ceremonies at weddings, funerals and the like.

The worst was when a single-mother friend persuaded me to endure two hours of happy-clappy nonsense at a Muswell Hill church because she wanted to get her daughter into the local C of E primary and needed a plausible male to act the devout husband in front of the vicar. Never again.

But plenty of people have a really tough time making their way in life as unbelievers. The most famous case in recent years is that of Salman Rushdie, against whom the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a sentence of death for apostasy after the publication of The Satanic Verses, but Rushdie is not alone. Professing atheism is apostasy in Islam and is traditionally punishable by execution — and in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and several other countries the punishment is still on the statute book or whatever the equivalent is. Unbelievers (and for all we know they could number millions) live in constant fear of their lives. Many other countries in the Islamic world do not enforce the death penalty for apostasy but nevertheless have severe blasphemy laws, among them Pakistan, where the penalty for blasphemy is life imprisonment and blasphemy actions are common.

Of course, in western Europe, blasphemy laws (in defence of Christianty) have fallen into disuse, though they still exist in several countries, among them Britain. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people always have an easy time of it giving up religion. At least a dozen Brits I know have been disowned by their families for abandoning their faith — three of them were thrown out of their parental homes for it — and I know plenty of others who keep quiet about their faithlessness in front of their parents even though they have long since left home.


Now, I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but most of the people I know of my generation or older who have been dropped by their families for ditching their religion come from Christian backgrounds — and most of those of a younger generation are former Muslims.

This could just be coincidence. And it could be because few of my friends and colleagues of my own age or older are Muslims or ex-Muslims, whereas lots of my students and former students are. I certainly wouldn’t want to extrapolate too much from a handful of examples. But hunch tells me that it is probably the result of something bigger — that Islam in Britain is beginning to go through precisely the same process of decline in the face of disbelief that Christianity experienced in the course of the 20th century.

This view is, in the current climate, a bit heterodox. The cant of the day is that, for better or worse, Islam in Britain — as elsewhere in Europe — is on the march, and that the Muslim community is an increasingly important political actor. George Galloway and a large part of the far left see Muslims as allies in anti-imperialism. Since 7/7, the government has been desperately trying to find Muslims who can credibly persuade Muslim youth not to become jihadis. The Spectator rants about the threat to our existence posed by “Eurabia”.

But what if the rise of radical Islamism among Muslim youth in Europe is in fact a symptom of a crisis of belief? What if the young men who turn to jihadism do so for the most part because they can’t get laid — because the girls they think should be theirs are turning them down because they can’t stand the idea of life with a dickhead 20-something would-be patriarch and have given up the religion?

Sorry if it’s not PC, but I’m more and more convinced that this is the story. Muslims in Britain are losing their religion. A few loons are resisting, but in the long run we’ll all benefit.

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