Karin van Nieuwkerk







Project Team:

Dr Karin van Nieuwkerk, Radboud University, The Netherlands (Principal Investigator)

Dates: 1 January 2018- 30 June 2019
Award: £72,200

Whereas the rapid rise of ‘nones’ in the West and movements like ‘New Atheism’ have received insufficient scholarly attention, this holds even more for similar developments in the Middle East. Religion as a solid, inerasable personal and political force appears to characterize our perception of the region. Yet non-believing seems to be a growing trend and cause of great concern for political and religious leaders in the Middle East.

In Egypt, for instance, the country this proposal focuses on, non-believing is at the moment a very sensitive issue. Since the 2011-revolution and particularly after the ousting of Islamist President Morsi in 2013, the media has claimed there is a tremendous increase in the amount of non-believers and atheists. This ‘problem’ is purportedly caused by a rigid understanding of religion as has been enforced by the Muslim Brothers. This would have caused especially young people to despise religion and set them off on a journey towards doubt and disbelief.

The powerful intertwinement of religion, politics and morality makes non-believing an extremely sensitive issue in Egypt. Yet, there is a noticeably increase in people coming out for non-believing and publicly testifying they left the faith. Recently there have emerged several You tube channels and Facebook pages on non-believing, agnosticism and atheism. This new trend is visible among Muslims as well as Coptic Christians and involves men as well as women. Some of them testify anonymously on social media, others do so openly. Some identify as activist atheists, others as agnostics.

Particularly for women, moving out of Islam is a contentious issue and systematically related to moral laxity. All non-believers are accused of immorality, however, the burden of this accusation weighs more heavily on women. Whereas for all non-believers leaving the community of faith is a painful experience, due to the minority status and involvement of the Coptic Church in everyday life activities of their followers, the impact on ex-Copts can be particularly acute. Accordingly, the different impact and hold of belief systems and institutions on people vary according to gender and ethnicity. These experiences inform the nature and expression of unbelief as well as the subsequent development of alternative outlooks on life, sensibilities and views on morality.

This interconnection of previous religious experiences and the nature of current unbelief is a central focus of this project. In addition the project will focus on non-believers’ own understandings of unbelief and the ensuing development of secular sensibilities and understanding of morality. The project will empirically examine how unbelief is perceived, defined, and debated in Egypt by diverse political and religious actors and which terms are used to label different forms of non-belief. It will also empirically investigate how male and female ex-Copts and ex-Muslims define and experience religious doubt and unbelief and analyse the cognitive and bodily expression of their unbelief.

The study will conduct a (ADAC) country case study by combining fieldwork and face-to-face interviews (30 in total) as well as a study of the non-believers’ social media, particularly You tube channels and online testimonials.