Ask Surly Amy and Heina: Ex Conservative Muslim

Dear Surly Amy,

I come from a conservative Muslim family. I married into a conservative Muslim family and now have 4 beautiful children. I’ve always been a critical thinker, and for the past few months, I’ve turned my skeptical eye (sorry Brian Dunning for steeling your line) on my religious views. It’s been a very difficult battle, but logic and reason won out.

I USED to be a conservative Muslim, now the only way to be honest with myself is to refer to myself as an apostate. I know of muslims who are drug dealers and pimps, their families and the Muslim community at large still accepts them with the belief that someday Allah will guide them to the “strait path”. I, however would be disowned by my family and shunned by the community, and worse of all, my conservative wife will likely leave me because is is Haram (a sin) for a Muslim woman to be married to a non-muslim man.

I love my family, and after 12 years of marriage, I am still in love with my wife. I can’t stand to be away from my kids for more than a day. But at the same time, keeping up the charade is getting harder and harder. I have stopped praying five times a day, and started taking responsibility for my life instead of placing everything in gods hands. I still can’t get myself to eat pork or drink alcohol, but thats OK.

You may be thinking how I know what their reaction will be. That simple to answer, it’s happened before. A former member of our community renounced Islam and was shunned and severely beaten on 2 occasions, and yes his wife left him. He commited suicide a few months later. Don’t worry, I would never hurt myself.

You are the first person I tell this to. I am living in a very lonely place, and the only reason I am writing to you is because I need somebody to know.

Living this double life is tearing me apart, and I know that I should be true to myself, but is it justifiable to remain in the “theological closet” so that I don’t lose everthing I love.


Rock and Hard Place

Dear Rock and Hard Place,

Thank you for sharing your story.

I can only imagine how difficult your situation must be. I was raised without religion and am not well versed in Muslim tradition, so I thought it best to go find an expert on the situation to give you some insight. Lucky for me, I didn’t even have to leave Skepchick Island to find an expert because our very own Heina is right here and happy to help.

New beginnings.

So without further ado I give you the brilliant, Heina.

From Heina:

First of all, thank you for reaching out. You’re in an incredibly tough situation and there is absolutely no reason to brave it alone. Though the ex-Muslim community is a new one, there are resources out there in terms of emotional and moral support. I’m not sure where you live, but there is an Ex-Muslims Council of Britain in addition to many websites and forums dedicated to helping apostates of Islam.

I completely understand where you’re coming from in terms of the community in which you live. Being a Muslim is more than just believing in a religion. It is often tied into community affiliation, family loyalty, and fundamental identity. It can be frustrating, as an honest non-believer, to look at people in the community who clearly violate the tenets of the religion in which they claim to believe, knowing that if you were to be honest, you would be shunned.

There is no easy answer in terms of what you should do. As you’ve seen what can happen to an ex-Muslim in your community, you know that you should tread lightly. Your personal safety and security trumps any ideological motivation towards total and complete intellectual honesty. At the same time, living a dual life is often a strain that eventually comes to define a person in a way that is detrimental to his or her mental health.

A slow, gradual transition to less outward Islam might be in order. Communicating with fellow ex-Muslims is a good first step. What also could help is letting people in your life know that you are “exploring your spirituality” or something equally euphemistic. You could always claim that you are being drawn towards Sufism or similar aspects of Islam where the inner (i.e. invisible) parts of the faith are emphasized over the outer parts. Slowly easing off the practice of Islam is something that is far from uncommon in the Muslim community — I’m sure you’ve seen very devout Muslims give up on certain practices and vice versa. As long as you pay lip service to the faith, people seem to have less of an issue with you.

I would also encourage you to reach out to your local atheist/secular community. Though many people may not understand how hard it would be for you to come out to your family and the Muslim community, there are likely people in such groups who do. I found ex-Mormons in particular to be incredibly helpful in terms of people who could empathize with me and vice versa.  Emotional support aside, building up community and friendship with non-Muslims can empower you to eventually feel that you should come out, if that’s what you choose.

I hope this helps and we wish you the best.



Photos by Amy.



Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.


Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

Related Articles


  1. Wow! What a horrible situation. I have not posted on the Muslim topics in here previously, but perhaps I should. I am married to a Muslim who has given up the faith. The consequences for this are so dire that I hesitate to mention my situation even in this anonymous forum. I had to fake a conversion to Islam so that we could be married. I even had to take a fake Islamic name. We live in the West, so we don’t need to worry about some of the things others in our situation might, but we still would be sentenced to death if we were to visit her homeland and were found out.

    For Rock and a Hard Place, I would suggest you send careful feelers out to others in your community. Do they harbor some doubts? Are they appalled at the treatment of apostates? How much does your wife love you? Would she stand by you through thick and thin or would she dump you without question?

  2. Dear Rock and a Hard Place

    Have you put out feelers to your wife? What is her stance on religion? Maybe it’s worthwhile discussing some things with her – not outright saying “I’m an apostate” in the first conversation, but discussing some of your doubts and feelings. She may be not far off from your own thinking, and just pretending for the same reasons you are. Or, through discussion, she may come to see things as you do as well. While this does not solve the external problem of the wider Muslim community, it could help within your own family life.

    Beyond that, I guess a lot depends on your location and personal circumstance. I have recently been reading a lot of blogs from the Patriarchy/quiverfull/fundamentalist Christian movements – their declaration of atheism is also tantamount to be being shunned or expelled from the community. Not an easy situation, not when all your friends and family are in that community.

    I wish you all the best in your journey, wherever it may take you.

  3. This sounds a lot like my story except it sounds nothing at all like my story. In the years leading up to my abandoning my Christin faith I’d become an increasingly liberal Christian with regard to my theology and my politics. When I finally admitted to myself that I’d become an atheist (I’d also considered myself a skeptical rational sort of person as a believer) I didn’t tell anyone I knew in person for about a year. My wife is still a nominal believer but she no longer attends church. My two children are 21 and 18 and my son, the 21 year old, is an atheist like me and my daughter attends church and has a very serious boyfriend who plans on being an Episcopal priest of the less than liberal sort. I’ve lost a close friend of over thirty years who was more like family than anything else as well as a number of other good friends; but there has never been any time when I was threatened or thought my wife would leave me. And to many of my friends credit when I told them I no longer was a believer they said they disagreed but understood, and that was the last time it was mentioned and our friendship has gone on as before.

    So for Rock and a Hard Place’s situation all I can think to suggest is that I cannot see or imagine any great moral or rational imperative to come out to anyone with your changed world views. Over the years many people in many cultures and religions have kept their personal opinions to themselves to preserve a marriage, their relationship with their children, or their position in society. If this were a situation where your continued outward appearance as a believer placed someone at risk of harm the situation would certainly be different; and I’d echo the advice to seek out other former Muslims for support in a confidential manner. Also if it’s an option perhaps you could attend religious services less and less and simply take on the mantle of thoughtful indifference. Some may see these suggestions’ as a cop-out but for me it would boil down to priorities and what you feel is worth preserving; and for you religion is no longer a belief option, but that’s not to say religion is no longer an important part of your life because of your family and community.

  4. My first thought is that a lie told under duress is the fault of the one applying the pressure, not the one lying. The letter-writer is under no obligation to make himself a target for the hatred or retribution of others for a matter that should not be any of their concern in the first place. It is they who are being unethical (even if they fail to see it as such), and therefore Rock & A Hard Place is not under any obligation to deal with them ethically, at least on this issue.

  5. I have nothing of use to add, not being involved in the Muslim community at all, but I would just like to offer my sympathy and support. If Rock and a Hard Place is in Toronto, I believe there is a Secular Freethought centre near U of T downtown.

  6. My situation is a similar at present as a closeted atheist in a Christian family.

    I grew up in a very religious family. When I met my wife-to-be, she let me know that it was Very Important for her to raise her kids as Christians, and at the time that was fine with me.

    Years later, when I made the switch to atheism, she quickly figured me out. I felt that I had essentially promised her before our wedding that I would support a Christian upbringing for our kids, though, and that it wouldn’t be right to go back on my promise. So I agreed to keep going through the motions and not spill the beans about my unbelief to my kids until they get older.

    I still go to church, enjoy the tunes of the hymns even though I no longer believe the words, and tune out most of what is said. I’ve even helped her teach Sunday School (though I’m subtly trying to make sure my kids learn ALL of what’s in the Bible, not just the parts they preach about, so maybe they’ll start thinking about them later).

    I do a lot of rationalizing. God is just a second version of Santa Claus — you let the kids know the unreality of the first one when they’re around ten, and the other around twenty. I grew up believing that stuff and I turned out ok, so they probably will too. A promise is a promise. Knowledge of the Bible as a literary work is important for understanding lots of art and literature. The art of knowing when Not to Say certain things is an important part of both marriage and parenting. Et cetera, et cetera. Really, though, it comes down to the knowledge that the relaxation that comes from letting my guard down wouldn’t be worth the upheaval to the life I love if I came clean.

    I realize that many may be offended that I place family before honest, but those are my priorities.

    So my advice to the letter-writer is that, at least for some personality types, the closet isn’t such a bad place. I’ve gotten used to it, and perhaps he can too.

  7. I am quite surprised at some of the advice to Rock And Hard Place which amounts to essentially, pretend you still believe, stay in the closet. Nobody would advise a gay person to just pretend to be straight!

    RAHP says that he loves his wife – but right now she loves the person she believes him to be, not the person he is (or has become). Is this workable, long term? Personally, I don’t think it is. If he gave her a chance to know the new RAHP, she might find she still loves him regardless, and they may work something out. She may even have her own secret doubts about Islam. But continuing to pretend is a situation unfair on both parties.

    That said, the fact that RAHP finds himself in a ‘live a lie or lose everything’ dilemma is an outrage and it is tantamount to being insidiously bullied by a religion that preserves beliefs over actual relationships with actual people. He shouldn’t have to make that choice.

    RAHP says he is now an atheist – surely he now looks upon this prioritising of belief as something quite distasteful? He may love the individuals involved, but now surely it is not possible to love the way the community works. Beating people up, shunning them, driving them to suicide, for leaving the faith? That is appalling. I can only imagine that he feels very unsafe, in fear of people finding out the truth, and that is no way to live your life. Everybody deserves to be accepted and loved for who they are.

    I would urge RAHP to first find whatever support he can, either via the internet or local skeptic groups (if there are any). Colleges, libraries and universities are a good place to start. Perhaps confide in a non-Muslim friend. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is a great link. Maryam Namazie is someone to look up who is a great writer and activist, she may inspire. It is important to have someone who understands, even if it’s only in the virtual world. The more links made outside the religious community, the easier it is to have confidence in one’s own atheism.

    FWIW the ex-Muslims I am close to, who have chosen to be true to themselves despite the consequences (which have been harsh in some cases) have ended up happier. Another life is possible.

    1. “I am quite surprised at some of the advice to Rock And Hard Place which amounts to essentially, pretend you still believe, stay in the closet. Nobody would advise a gay person to just pretend to be straight!”

      Yeah, I agree. But I think that’s more because of how far people’s thoughts on gay rights have come in the last ten years. This year our President just declared support for gay marriage, DODT was overturned, and for the first time major polling of Americans show a majority supporting gay marriage.

      Atheists, on the other hand, are not enjoying such wide-spread support, partly because our PR isn’t as successful right now, and partly because we already have legal protections under the law that gay people don’t have (the issue is that, like law against racism, they aren’t always followed).

      Is “They’ll beat the fuck out of me/my family will shun me/I can’t break up my family” a happy, positive, nice reason to stay in the closet, whether you’re queer or a non-believer? NO. Is it a choice we can judge someone for making? I can’t comfortably say yes to that, because each person’s situation is different.

      I guess I feel uncomfortable about advice to stay in the closet due to safety and family shunning because it reminds me so much of abusive relationships, and staying with an abusive partner because of the threat of violence or family pressure.

      The concern about not seeing your kids, however, CAN be a great concern for the male writer if he is in a region where custody courts tend to favor women getting custody. However, my understanding of custody law in most places in Canada and the US is that if the father isn’t an abuser and the parents are MARRIED, it’s pretty hard for a mother to get full custody against the father’s will.

      It is, however, a valid fear.

      If you love your wife, I think the fair thing to do would be to slowly tell her. I would hate to find out that my husband had stopped being an atheist and slowly became a Christian WITHOUT TELLING ME, because I WOULD want a divorce. He wouldn’t be shunned by my family, and I wouldn’t prevent him from seeing our dogs or future children, but I would feel tricked and angry if I found out he’d been lying to me about something that he knows I consider so important. A relationship based on giant lies isn’t healthy, in my book.

      So reach out for support. You may choose to stay in the closet, but because I know so many people, both queer and atheist, who are so very glad they came out of the closet (Including my aunt, who came out as gay twenty years ago after being married for years and having two kids with her husband at the time) despite the social flak they got, I urge you not to eliminate coming out as an option. It may not be right for you RIGHT NOW, but it may become more palatable in the future.

    2. The reason that I didn’t say “come on out, it’s so awesome out here!” is because life wasn’t awesome for the person in his community who did come out — the whole “beaten and bullied to death” thing.

      I’m an out ex-Muslim. On one hand, my life has improved in many ways since I’ve become an atheist, and I wouldn’t take it back if I could.

      On the other hand? Due to the pressures I’ve been under since declaring myself an atheist to the world, I’ve suffered panic attacks, anxiety, and depression, and engaged in suicidal ideation and self-harm. I’ve lost friends and family members. I’ve caused my parents a great deal of grief (the Muslim community in which we exist is very gossipy and petty); they seriously considered relocating halfway around the world to escape it all. Around the time I came out as an atheist, I was at my lowest adult weight; I put on ~50 lbs. due to stress eating and sheer mental exhaustion. The paranoia triggered by threats leveled at myself and my family contributed to the demise of my first romantic relationship. My college grades went from As to barely-scraping-by Cs, effectively killing my chances at grad school. I went $30k+ into student debt because I couldn’t stand living with my parents anymore, which, along with the recession, has led me to the financially crappy situation in which I currently exist.

      There is a cost, and more than a lot of people would know or realize. Despite all of that, I consider myself lucky. I’m lucky in that my family ultimately loves me and cares about me, despite disapproving of my choices. I’m lucky in that my mental health issues were triggered by certain situations and CBT mostly took care of them instead of them being lifelong mental health conditions. Other people have gone through, are going through, and will go through far worse.

      Coming out isn’t easy or even worth it for everyone.

  8. First of all, I’m so sorry, this sounds like an awful and very stressful situation to e in. I recommend a daily dose of red panda to remind you that no matter your situation, somewhere there is a red panda being adorable and that makes everything okay.

    Second, I agree with everyone who has said you need to bring this up with your wife. She is your wife and you love her, that means being honest even when it hurts. Obviously this isn’t something you can do overnight or overtly. I wonder if you could perhaps frame it in talking about your unfortunate friend’s situation, “I was thinking about [friend] lately and I find it’s been upsetting me. It makes me wonder what might happen to us if one of us lost our faith. I want you to know I love you and I am committed to our relationship no matter what happens, I will support you.” might help at least get some ideas from her about what she thinks about it.

    Becoming an atheist hasn’t been at all stressful for me (my grandmother’s always been one), but I have been shunned from a community under different circumstances and that -hurts-.
    Of course it’s important to find people in person you can talk to, but we’re here for you too. Stay strong :)

  9. Slightly more whimsically, RAHP, at least feel comforted that imbibing alcohol is not an article of faith for skeptics, no matter how it may seem if you read this crowd. ;-)

  10. I don’t know what to add except a suggestion that may not be helpful. I dunno, but it is all I can come up with.

    My family — most of them, anyway — are Jews. They aren’t terribly religious, and there are lots of old socialist/atheist/that weird lefty stuff, but we all interact with more or less religious people pretty regularly — we are in NYC after all.

    Now, in many cases, there are lots of outwardly religious Jews I have met who are actually atheists or luke-warm believers at best.

    How do they keep on doing all the things like Sabbath prayer and Seder?

    Well, it’s simply looking a all those things as markers of identity rather than belief. That is, I don’t believe in God. But Seder is an important thing to me nonetheless. It’s a time to get together with family and such, kibitz, and all that. Shabbos dinner? Same thing. Weekly Torah portion? Been meaning to get through that anyway.

    I don’t know how this relates to Muslim communities or if it would be feasible. Maybe all this is completely idiotic to a Muslim (Heina, your thoughts?) But in religions that have a lot of ritual, in some ways there is a good “out” — you do all the rituals but you attach different meanings.

    And to me, keeping with some things to keep others in the family happy isn’t so bad. I mean I had a mirror-image problem — I didn’t want to tell my atheistic, socialist immediate family about my deepening involvement with more religious Jews in college.

    But again, I don’t know enough to know if this kind of thing works in a relatively conservative Muslim family context.

    And even as a non-believer I stayed away from pork for years and even kept a semi-kosher household.

    So, maybe the Friday prayer doesn’t have to be prayer, per se, but a kind of meditation. I don’t know what equivalents to major holidays that involve family gatherings in Islam are — Eid? But look at it as a family gathering. You aren’t “hiding” your unbelief, just not broadcasting it. It lets people down gently.

    Again, if this is stupid, mea culpa.

    1. Hm, I don’t know. I found the rituals involved with being a Muslim far too pointless, tedious, and numerous to keep up with when fear of hell was out of the picture.

      The ability to fake it really depends on the person and the situation. I couldn’t but my younger sister could.

  11. BTW I am aware that for Jews and Muslims the markers of identity are a bit different — even an atheist Jew is still a Jew, to other Jewish people, anyway. (You can’t get out of the tribe, basically, even if you want to).

    That isn’t true for Muslims or Christians, AIUI. Tho for Muslims in a Western country it gets complicated b/c of the racialization. But that’s a different set of problems. Anyhow, I was just trying to offer a way to deal with the pervasive religious stuff and stay sane in your own head, while you find a way to talk to your wife and family about this. (The wife especially).

  12. I feel strongly that morality dictates, quite unequivocally, that when there is a felt pressure to say something that will mostly cause great pain, it must be resisted.

    When the only benefit to admitting a truth is to oneself, and it is in no way a material or psychological one (eg. the pressure to admit a crime is different), then logically it is simply selfish and unreasonable to claim that you ‘believe’ that you ‘must’ tell the truth – and cause great pain and even damage.

    Since you seem to be suffering a moral crisis, I hope this ‘clear’ perspective is informative to you. I honestly cannot see how keeping your secret could present a moral crisis to a reasonable person in your circumstances – circumstances which include the actual possibility of being murdered if you speak up.

  13. My heart goes out to you. While a glimmer of it is still there I lost the majority of my faith in the first few years of chronic illness. Like many people for me faith and family are so closely related. I know my sister was concerned that when her husband refused to marry her in church that we wouldn’t come, but we did and there was never any question of us not in our minds.

    Your family is the most important thing here, approach it with your wife but remember that gradual change is always easier. You’ve had time to come to terms with your new perspective and she will need time too. Is there a less strict mosque in your area that might help your wife? I can imagine a lot of her fears would be to do with herself and the children being rejected too.

    All the best.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: