According to the same study, there are 1.1 billion atheists, uncommitted and agnostics across the world (as of 2010). This number will exceed 1.2 billion by 2050, although there will be a decline from 16% to 13% relative to the global population.

In addition, as the pages on social networking sites expand their call for atheism, the pages of the shaykhs and preachers still boast a huge number of followers. In fact, many of these preachers are finding new ways to communicate with the public. Some of them have even modernised their rhetoric, allowing them to reach new followers among the younger generation.

A passing fad, says one academic

Whilst the role of the Internet in the propagation of atheism in the region is clear, "it is unhelpful to dismiss all other factors", affirms Montasser Hamadeh, a researcher of religion. In interview Hamadeh describes religion as one factor behind the spread of atheism, especially as regards "the negative counter-reaction to aspects of traditional religious rhetoric, notably towards the stricter elements of it".

He points out that a certain Gulf country has the highest rate of atheism in the whole region, despite the challenge in determining the actual number of atheists and in getting a clear picture of the phenomenon.

And that is not to forget the political aspect, says Hamadeh. It "flows directly from what happened in the Arab Spring, the events of which provided an opportunity for many religious and cultural phenomena which had been previously hidden from view, to rise to the surface."

For all that, Hamadeh does not see any significant atheistic manifestations in the region at present. According to him, if there are any surviving instances of "cognitive or cultural atheism", they may be a "passing societal phenomenon, reminiscent of similar fads in the 1960s and 1970s."

Modest growth in the west

Hamadeh gives the example of the "Forward" movement (Ila al-Amam) which was active in Morocco at that time. It turned out decades later that "there is no future for such rhetoric in the region because of psychological, cultural and political considerations, and also because the region is generally conservative in terms of religion."

Hamadeh offers a further explanation: "It is true that some digital sites and online pages (which promote atheist thinking) are quite popular, but they do not reflect the true extent of atheism. This is because of the cultural circumstances in general, and within that, issues of religion and identity in the Arab world that do not allow for any significant growth in atheistic rhetoric. Indeed, the growth is modest even in Western countries, especially in Europe."

The fact is that the Internet will remain, at least in the short term, a haven for Arabs who wish to explore the depths of atheism. While "American Conservatism: an Encyclopaedia" celebrates a decline in the number of visitors to websites promoting atheism and a drop in Google searches for the word "atheism" between 2004 and 2019, Google Analytics reveals a general rise in the number of searches for the word in Arabic during the same period.

Mauritania, Morocco and Syria top this list, in that order, while Lebanon and the UAE are in the top 20 of countries where searches are conducted for the word in English.

Ismail Azzam

© 2019

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

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