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The Comedy of Errors

Leap of Faith: Nottingham Residents Who Have Left Their Religion Behind

23 April 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Leosaysays

Between 2011 and 2019, the number of British people who identified as being non-religious increased by a staggering 46%. To put that in context, that made them the fasting growing group in the country and, with the new census currently being undertaken, that number is expected to grow further. While being an atheist isn’t quite the taboo it once was in an increasingly secular country, for some people, turning away from god can pose huge mental, physical and spiritual challenges. We talked to Notts residents Tony Challis, the President of Nottingham Secular Society, and Amir X (whose real name has been retracted at his request), a former Muslim, to find out how difficult it was to leave religion behind…

“Even now I’m incredibly nervous talking about it. On one hand, I know from experience how dangerous anti-Islam sentiment can be in this country, and I don’t want to do anything to stoke that flame any further. But this is also my truth, and there are plenty of reasons why I no longer call myself a Muslim.”

Within two minutes of our Zoom call, Amir X stressed that he doesn’t want his real name to be used at any point of the article. Until earlier this year, he hadn’t spoken to his immediate family since telling them he had lost his faith, and is genuinely concerned about his wellbeing. “I initially tried to talk to them about my reasons for leaving Islam, but their main concern was for the family’s reputation,” he tells me. “I heard that some of my wider family had made threats about me, so I had to delete my social media and keep a bit of a low profile. 

At first, Amir still considered himself a Muslim “in the sense of tradition and family”, but found the faith side of it so constricting and painful: “It constantly enforced this rigid set of rules that, for someone who always felt a bit different, made no sense to me. Like an endless ritual that had no time for anyone who dared to question why.”

Tony Challis was nine years old when his mother became an “enthusiastic convert” to Catholicism. Attendance at an all-boy Catholic Grammar School, catechism classes and his Catholic confirmation led to an initial enthusiasm in the faith. “I was very much into it at that point… at sixteen I was a narrow-minded little prig! I really believed in the one above who could see everything.” But disillusionment at the structure of religion and a period of self-discovery soon saw his faith waver, “It just seemed illogical to me. And around age seventeen or eighteen, I became aware of myself as a gay man, and the church was horrific in its attitudes.” Those attitudes manifested themselves in the likes of Joseph Ratzinger – the future Pope Benedict XVI – describing homosexuality as an abomination, and the impact of those atavistic attitudes left a lasting impact on Tony. “It led to a period of self-loathing as a person who was a gay man and who had been rejected by the church. It was very depressing.”

But from the depths of that rejection, Tony found himself presented with new opportunities. “It was a very down period, but in terms of thinking afresh, it was a new birth as well.” One of his teachers, ironically a priest himself, encouraged young Tony to read widely and think critically. “He threw everything at us from Sophocles to Sartre, and didn’t worry that we would debate the existence of god,” he says. “I read a lot of Bertrand Russell, who was very inspiring… it felt like I’d gone through the darkness before the dawn, and then found this new life where I could look at things rather differently.”

It constantly enforced this rigid set of rules that, for someone who always felt a bit different, made no sense to me. Like an endless ritual that had no time for anyone who dared to question why

But while atheism presented stimulating new cerebral pursuits for Tony, the same couldn’t be said for Amir. “I know there are large groups and communities of atheists and stuff, but I don’t consider myself part of them. I just want to be my own thing for a while, and don’t see much to celebrate in what I’ve done,” he explains. “Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now I just feel like there’s a huge hole in the centre of my life; I don’t have my family, I don’t have most of my friends. I had to change my job and I live in an area that’s very new to me. I feel like I made the right decision, but at the moment it’s a pretty hard road to walk down.” 

As the President of Nottingham Secular Society, Tony dedicates much of his time to the cause of separating religion from the state, striving toward a society where human rights always take precedence over religious demands. He describes the state of religious privilege in Britain, from having bishops in the House of Lords (“they have quite an influence on debates”), assisted dying (“there are a disproportionate number of religious people in Parliament, which is why it has been so heavily blocked”) and faith schools (“in certain areas of the country, there just isn’t an option to send your children to a non-religious or non-Anglican school”). But his stance isn’t to eradicate religion, rather that it shouldn’t have undue advantages in society, or that the religious have the authority to hold sway over political decision-making. 

Being one of seven children, it was Amir’s siblings who he missed the most after being ostracized. Less than a month before our conversation, he received a phone call from his sister, who he hadn’t spoken to for years.  “She found out where I was working and got in touch one day out of the blue. She said that she had lost her faith as well, and had gone through a similar experience with my parents as I had,” he tells me. Having fallen in love with a non-Muslim, Amir’s sister had chosen to ignore her family’s wishes and get married. “She had a choice between happiness and love, or a life that she didn’t enjoy and which made her feel trapped. I’m really proud of her for choosing the former. It makes me feel more confident that I chose the right way, too.”

And while some find structure and happiness in the community and routine of religion, others can only find true happiness away from it. As Tony tells me, reading from a Robert Green Ingersoll quote on his wall, “Happiness is the only good... the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

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