Sarah Haider is co-founder of ex-Muslims of North America. She is prominent in social media as an activist, after bursting onto the scene by giving a speech at The American Humanist Association conference in 2015. More recently I would highly recommend watching her defend the novel idea that there shouldn’t be safe spaces on a panel discussion. Sarah has also been profiled recently in Quillette, On Betrayal by the Left – Talking with Ex-Muslim Sarah Haider
1. I know that you were a sincere believer in religion at some point. Did this affect you in your day to day life in any discernible manner?
When I was religious, I practiced what I believed. Even today, I have difficulty understanding the perspective of believers who choose aspects of the faith to practice or ignore. If you have an ethical code you believe to be true and you *don’t* follow it, you are admitting yourself to be an immoral person. Having said that, my parents were liberal Muslims (liberal being a strictly relative term), and I was educated with a more humanist version of the faith than commonly practiced.
I left the religion at about 15, the age when it no longer seemed sufficient to parrot the beliefs of my parents. I had begun to look deeper into the faith, questioning aspects that seemed nonsensical or immoral in an attempt to better understand (and therefore align closer to the revealed truth). I dressed modestly to deflect attention from my body, and to the bemusement of my parents, I chose to don the hijab for a short period. I stayed away from drugs or sexual encounters of any kind, complied with dietary restrictions, and prayed as regularly as I could. My practice decreased as my doubts grew – and by the end of high school, I no longer felt tied to any observance. Given the years of shame over my body, however, I continued to have hang-ups about sex and sexuality for some time. I remember (at 18 years of age) putting on thigh-length shorts in public for the first time – I had never felt more naked.
2. Do you believe that Islam is in some way sui generis when compared to other world religions in how capable of embracing modernity?
It is hard to dispute the idea that Islam has remained resilient in the face of modernity. Vast majorities of Muslims and Eastern Islamic scholars believe literalism alone can bring us closer to the commandments of god – while biblical literalists are truly a fringe phenomenon. Meanwhile, the unchanging “perfection” of the text is a central claim of the faith – it is what gives the Quran supremacy over the Bible, why Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets”. There isn’t a long history of revisionism either, but there have been many efforts to revert religious practice to the time of Muhammad.
Despite all of that, I am hesitant to make broad claims of the “capability” of the religion to embrace modernity, although I will say I expect the faith is as likely to break as it is to bend. Comparisons to the slow modernization of Christianity fall flat in the face of the very different world we live in today. Islam’s backwardness and limited ability to flex may be its undoing – I’ve noticed an increase of atheists and agnostics as literature/media critical of Islam becomes more widely accessible. Christianity never had to face such a rapid onslaught of challenges.
3. Is there any particular philosopher who most exemplifies your own thought?
I’ll admit I can’t think of one in particular – but I’ve been influenced by John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Peter Singer. Lately I’ve been exploring Hannah Ardent’s work more closely, particularly her essays on civil disobedience and violence in politics.
4. Do you read any languages besides English? If yes, does this impact how you view the world (e.g., being able to access a wider array of news sources)?
Sad to say, not particularly.
5. People of a materialist and irreligious orientation seem to align in the United States, and more broadly internationally, on the political Left. Do you think this is contingent, or a necessary outcome of the psychology of the irreligious?
It appears to be a bit of both.
Most versions of conservatism understand religion to be a worthwhile institution in society, and so long as that stands it is safe to assume atheist sympathies will continue to lie (on the whole) with the Left.
GOP leaders often use an appeal to religious authority in order to justify policies and regularly bend over backwards to court the most religious Americans – terribly repellant to many atheists. The American political right appears to be subservient to dictates of Christianity rather than secular morality or reason.
I don’t think that other conservative or right-wing values are inherently unappealing to nonbelievers, however. I’ve also noticed some recent trends which may affect political allegiance.
I’ve felt an increasing hostility to some fields of science coming from the political Left, particularly a denial of biological influence in human behavior and outcomes. As this tendency becomes better known, so may some scientific-minded atheists distance themselves from the politics that fuel it. Islam may be the biggest game changer of all – the Left’s refusal to acknowledge the problems within the religion have left some atheists (myself included) feeling betrayed and abandoned.
6. Do you think it is possible in the future, barring trans/posthumanism, that human beings could ever become a mostly nonreligious species?
If by religion, you mean simply “a belief in the supernatural”, then yes, given a greater understanding of the natural world it is possible humans become a mostly nonreligious species. However, irrational “faith” is not exclusive to religions and I am not too sure that we can overcome dogmatic tendencies and instill skeptical thinking within the majority.
I think a greater danger than religion in and of itself is the propensity to reject the existence of an objective reality and disavowal of our own rationality as a means of understanding the world.
I can sometimes find quite a bit of irrational behavior among secular individuals, and I find their inability to see the similarities between religious and nonreligious dogma to be distressing. Is this tendency something deeply and irremovable human?
7. You’re a Texan. I’m curious whether that’s influenced your outlook on life in any way.
While in Texas, I was staunchly progressive but ever since I left the state, I find myself moving gradually to the political center. This may mean that a contrarian spirit rather than a true ideological alignment motivated my leftist tendencies – but I believe that isn’t entirely the case. I had a very negative view of conservatism and libertarianism while surrounded by their excesses, and since I’ve left that particular bubble (and walked into another) my feelings have tempered.
8. You go home to Texas and visit your family, but do you ever go to Pakistan? If not, do you plan to?
I do not regularly visit Pakistan, and since I’ve become more public with my activism I believe it would be unwise to do so in the future. I find it curious (but unsurprising) that in discussions of the supposed unbearable hostility experienced by Muslims in the West, the plight of non-Muslims/apostates in Muslim countries is never really brought up. Safe to say that a Muslim is far safer in any Western country than a public apostate like me is in any Muslim one. In fact, I can go further than that. Safe to say that a Muslim is far safer in any Western country than someone like me is *in that very same* Western country.
9. What’s your most unpopular obscure opinion that those who follow your work might be surprised by?
Generally speaking, individual rights and freedoms are central to my understanding of a healthy, functioning society. I also lean progressive, so I hold many leftist ideas about what constitutes a family. Having said that, I’m not “on board” with the idea shared by some progressives that a society that moves beyond the two-parent family is desirable. I am alarmed by the rise of single parenthood, and I believe that, on the whole, children raised by single parents are at a severe disadvantage compared to dual-parent households, no matter how loving and dedicated the single parent. While shaming such parents is despicable, women should be discouraged from having children without a committed, long-term partner. In fact, I think an ideal atmosphere for child rearing is closer to the joint-family common in South Asia. It may not be the most desirable or “liberating” environment for some individuals (certainly wouldn’t be for me), but parents have a duty to consider their children’s needs. Conservatives reading this might think that was a spectacularly benign thing to say – but it really is controversial in some circles I frequent.
10. In no particular order, could you list five books that have influenced you? Don’t spend more than a minute or so, not an issue if you’d give a somewhat different list if asked again tomorrow! (here’s mine: Principles of Population Genetics, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, From Dawn to Decadence, In Gods We Trust, and The Blank Slate).
1. Kindly Inquisitors – Jonathon Rauch
2. Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
3. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
4. The Red Queen – Matt Ridley
5. Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell.