What You Wear, What You Eat, and Whom You Love

Reflections on a Turn Toward Lived Nonreligion

in Religion and Society
Author:
Lena Richter Researcher, MIDA, Germany

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Abstract

Looking at the diverse experiences of former Muslims shows that becoming and being nonreligious encompasses more than a rational one-time decision that can be studied from a mere ontological-cognitive perspective. It is deeply linked to personal experiences, relations, and emotions. While previous research has often focused on organized, coherent, and cognitive forms of nonreligion, more and more scholars have started to embrace material, embodied, and emotional aspects in their studies on nonreligion. This ongoing development can be described as turning toward a lived nonreligion framework that pays more attention to the everyday experiences of ‘ordinary’ nonbelievers. Applying this approach to the experiences of young Moroccan nonbelievers, I explore the extent to which the lived nonreligion framework manages to capture the ethnographic complexity that their narratives offer.

April 2022. I enter the apartment of Sara and Mouad, a young couple in their mid-twenties working in the medical field. In contrast to what their neighbors think, they are unmarried. The three of us, accompanied by their small dog, sit down on a huge sedari, a U-shaped Moroccan couch. From the kitchen, we can already smell lunch. Mouad takes a drag of his cigarette, ready to start the interview. These details might not be noteworthy if it were not the middle of Ramadan in Morocco, a Muslim-majority country, where, as Sara puts it, “just practicing our nonreligion can get us behind bars.” While arrests are rare, most nonbelievers keep a low profile to be on the safe side.

Later on in the interview, Mouad asks jokingly: “Are you asking us if we do haram stuff? Well, what you're wondering is: ‘Does religion still define what we do?’ No. Islam really doesn't determine my moral compass anymore.” Sara is a bit more reserved. For her, it depends on the surroundings: at home you “could literally grow weed,” while in public that's not possible. She cannot always dress the way she wants and her tattoo usually remains hidden. “I would call myself an atheist, but I act like a Muslim. Yesterday I almost passed out because I visited my family and I almost didn't eat the whole day and it was exhausting to pretend that I'm fasting. At my office, I do hide some food in a cupboard, but if people see it, I say it's for the kids I work with. I sometimes even listen to Quranic music, so that my colleagues get the impression I'm religious. I used to drink alcohol, but I stopped, and I don't eat pork or non-halal meat—it's disgusting!” “Only Muslims say it's disgusting,” Mouad tosses in. “No, not only Muslims,” Sara counters. “I have atheist friends who tasted it and said there's nothing like Moroccan meat.”

As this small interaction between Sara and Mouad shows, which nonreligious and religious practices one follows and how open one is about them can vary widely. While Mouad, who is from a nonreligious family, is quite comfortable with being openly nonreligious and systematically breaking religious rules, Sara, as a woman of color who grew up in a conservative neighborhood, is more reluctant. For instance, she stopped being vocal about atheism on Twitter, as she received many derogatory and salacious comments. Comparing the two experiences illustrates that the space to be openly nonreligious differs across people and depends on the neighborhood, workplace, family background, gender, and ethnicity, as well as the socio-economic situation.

The difference in their approaches to nonreligion also becomes clear when we finish the interview. It is already around 7 p.m., the time to break the fast (ftour), which means that there are no trams, taxis, or buses running to take me from the suburbs back to the center of Rabat. Sara offers to take me home by car, but she is a bit hesitant: What will the neighbors think if we leave the house now? They could get the idea that Sara and Mouad do not fast, because everyone who fasts should be at home eating now. Mouad convinces her by saying: “It's okay, Lena is a foreigner, so we have a ‘white shield’ with us.” Sara opens the door carefully to see if the neighbors are around. Mouad rolls his eyes: “Come on, it's fine.” Without talking, we silently go down the stairs and quickly move to the car. When we drive through the streets of Rabat, the roads are so empty that we even run some red lights. Only once do we see another car driving. “That must be fellow atheists,” Sara says jokingly.

This glimpse into the everyday life of Sara and Mouad during Ramadan illustrates different types of nonreligious conduct. First of all, we can see the absence of religious practices, such as not praying and not fasting. Secondly, we can witness practices that break religious rules, such as drinking beer, having a tattoo, and living together without being married. At the same time, we can notice practices that seem religious at the first sight—such as pretending to fast, purporting to be married, and listening to Quranic music—but that lack religious intention. A lot of practices are also ambiguous: having a dog or drinking beer would be considered nonreligious by some, while others would argue that a lot of Muslims engage in these practices as well. So how can we ethnographically make sense of the complexities and practices of being nonreligious?

In this article, the experiences of nonbelievers illustrate how quotidian practices can foster a greater understanding of the reality of nonbelievers. Mouad's and Sara's narratives are part of around fifty in-depth interviews which I conducted between 2020 and 2023. Using hybrid ethnography (Przybylski 2020), I additionally include examples from online and offline observations made on social media and in urban places. The gender-mixed research group consisted of young, educated adults up to the age of thirty-five who mostly grew up in middle-class Muslim families in Casablanca or Rabat. Acknowledging that their identifications range from atheist to agnostic to undecided, I have opted for the broad terms ‘nonbelievers’ and ‘nonreligion’. The latter term also coincides with the Arabic term lā dīnī.

Rethinking the Study of Nonreligion

Anthropology has a long tradition of studying religion, dating back to scholars such as E. E. Evans-Prichard (1937), who argued that the question of religion is not a scientific one. The ‘evidence’ for a belief does not matter; from an anthropological perspective it is real, as it bears real meaning for people (Bowie 2006). Yet only recently have anthropologists started to study the ways in which people disengage from religion (e.g., Van Nieuwkerk 2018). Nonreligion has been especially overlooked in Morocco and other WANA1 countries, which are often portrayed as homogenously Muslim with an omnipresent Islam determining everything from politics to society (Karim 1997).

Approaches to studying nonreligion are still under development and can therefore be informed by the more established field of lived religion. The lived religion approach has contributed to a more nuanced and complex understanding of religiosity by shedding light on the actual and everyday practices of ‘ordinary’ believers (McGuire 2008). However, it is often limited to the investigation of expressions of religion, and, in that way, has come to be defined by what it excludes, namely nonreligion (cf. Ammerman 2016). In order to acknowledge the realities of nonbelievers, the lived religion approach needs to be broadened to nonreligion.

When it comes to the study of nonreligion, we can observe similar trends that are comparable to the early study of religion. First, more attention has been paid to spokespeople, such as militant, vocal, and sometimes anti-religious atheists (Engelke 2015). While these positions should not be left out, most nonbelievers have more subtle viewpoints on religion and do not always define themselves as atheists (Lee 2015). Nonreligious identifications should include the manifold, fuzzy, and even contradictory views of ‘ordinary’ nonbelievers (Voas 2009). Studying nonreligion ‘from below’ also moves away from what nonreligion ‘ought to be’, and instead shows that individuals often blend mundane and religious views and practices (Bailey 2010; Halafoff et al. 2020).2

Second, too much emphasis has been put on institutional and organized forms of nonreligion, such as humanist organizations, secular groups, or state-sponsored atheism in socialist countries (An-Na'im 2008; Engelke 2015; Luehrmann 2011; Mahmood 2015). In Morocco and many other WANA countries, this approach falls short, as it is not possible to formally leave Islam or to officially establish a nonreligious organization. The few nonreligious organizations often remain informal. In general, nonreligion is less openly communicated and institutionalized and, therefore, the focus on the everyday, banal, and informal becomes even more important. Comparing the quotidian practices of nonreligious citizens with the existing literature on the everyday lives of Muslims in Morocco enables us to investigate both commonalities and disparities (Asad 2009; Mahmood 2015; Rachik and Tozy 2007; Schielke 2010).

Third, being nonreligious is frequently understood as merely having a mindset: “a lack of belief in the existence of God/s” (Bullivant 2008: 365). This dominant perception of nonreligion as a cognitive and personal view is also caused by media discourses and the huge influence of theology and philosophy in the field of nonreligion studies (Cotter 2015). While we should not completely ignore these cognitive aspects, in order to grasp the complexity involved in disaffiliating from Islam, more attention needs to be devoted to cultural and lived aspects of nonreligion. Becoming not religious can be an emotional and relational process that demands a great deal of energy. While there is no fixed ‘post-Islam script’ (Cottee 2015), many nonbelievers embrace a new lifestyle, which consists of embodied and performed everyday interactions. As stated by Mouad, this lifestyle is influenced by an ethical compass, which is no longer informed by religious criteria, such as haram or halal, but rather by values such as individual freedom. Partly, the resemblance in lifestyle is also related to the fact that many young nonbelievers have a similar cultural repertoire, as they are part of a globalized social media generation.

While some scholars (e.g., Binder 2016; Copeman and Quack 2015; Mumford 2015) have begun to address these aspects, this shift needs further scrutiny. By drawing on the strengths of the lived religion approach—such as its emphasis on (1) ordinary people (2) in their everyday lives and (3) their embodiment of nonreligion—we can add nuance to the study of nonreligion, which also benefits religious studies as a whole (McGuire 2008).

‘Ordinary’ Nonbelievers

The closer people's worldviews are probed—even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals—the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame a Western discourse on ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’ or ‘religion’ [and] ‘irreligion’. (Pasquale 2010: 63)

Studying lived nonreligion through an ethnographic lens shifts attention to the diverse emic views of ‘ordinary’ nonbelievers. Nonreligion serves rather as a descriptive category that can be filled with different ways of making sense of the world. Self-identifications often go beyond the either-or classifications provided in surveys and instead can be general, ambivalent, and vague. For instance, they can range from ‘Atheist Muslim’ to ‘agnostic’ and ‘humanist’. Out of a desire not to be put in a box, fear of stereotypes, or undecidedness, some also prefer to refrain from labels completely (Lee 2015). By and large, my interviewees carefully chose how they presented themselves depending on the specific relational situation and the reactions they had received in the past.

The focus on meaning-making also shows that people disengage from religion for diverse reasons, such as economic, social, emotional, political, and humanist motives (Lee 2015). According to Kacem El Ghazzali, one of the first open nonbelievers in Morocco and a member of Humanists International: “Leaving Islam is not just the lack of belief. It's an intellectual, political, and personal statement.”3 In the narratives of many interviewees, the question of belief was secondary (see also Vliek 2020). They were more inclined to mention ‘humanist values’4 such as gender equity or LGBTQ+ rights. This shows that leaving Islam is not only about turning away from religion but also about turning toward, for instance, new values centered around humanism (Binder 2016).

Including more ‘ordinary’ views leads to an intermingling rather than a clear separation of religious and nonreligious perceptions. These emic identifications become even more complex when applying a longitudinal and fluid approach that takes into consideration that religiosity is a constantly evolving process that can change depending on the time of the year, the phase of life, and even the mood of the day. While most interviewees shared the view that leaving Islam was an irreversible step, a few remained open to the idea of becoming closer again to religion and spirituality, for instance, in the form of Buddhism or Sufism. While leaving Islam can involve drastic changes, (non)religious positioning is more than a one-time decision. It is an ongoing negotiation that has concrete effects on daily life.

Everyday Life

At this juncture, anthropologists must surely contribute to the expansion of the repertoire of ethnographic studies of actual, lived situations (in the West and outside it) in which local people enact their understandings of, interest in, or perhaps total indifference to the secular and the religious. (Cannell 2010: 97)

Religion plays a huge role in the upbringing of many Moroccans and is an intrinsic part of their daily life. Being Muslim can influence how people talk, eat, and interact with one another. For this reason, moving toward a more nonreligious lifestyle involves a process of learning and unlearning. Looking at everyday life raises questions about which religious practices to dispose of, which new practices to begin, and which religious practices to keep (see Copeman and Hagström, this volume).

For the majority of nonbelievers, becoming nonreligious means dropping most religious practices. This non-engagement can include not going to the mosque, not praying, having no intention to perform the hajj (pilgrimage), and not fasting during Ramadan. Some former Muslims also no longer—or only ironically—use religious terminology. This non-engagement triggers invitations by Muslim family members and friends to (re-)join practices. Whereas in Morocco it is relatively accepted not to pray, not taking part in Ramadan is, by contrast, often met with incomprehension. Not practicing or practicing less can be a way to slowly dampen religious expectations, instead of immediately proclaiming one's nonbelief.

For some, the strictness of religious practices and rules was one reason for starting to rethink religion. According to Mouad, 16 is the age when religion becomes very inconvenient because you are young and want to enjoy your life: “You have to fast and you can't have sex before marriage.” For Mouad, religion was a huge investment and commitment, so he thought he should “fact-check it at some point.” Sara added: “It is also the age when people ask questions about their sexuality and start to question the authority and omniscience of their parents.”

Ending religious practices leaves a gap that many, often unconsciously, fill in with a different outlook. Leaving Islam can thus be a moment of experimentation and trying out new things. New routines can be very diverse but might include meditation, reading philosophical books instead of the Quran, checking updates in nonreligious Facebook groups, and following nonreligious YouTubers such as Sherif Gaber,5 Hamed Abdel-Samad,6 or Hicham Nostik (2020).7 For some, this can become a daily habit, as one interviewee described listening to Hicham Nostik before going to sleep as being therapeutic. Another interviewee had a similar experience during the COVID-19 curfew, when he spent three months alone in his house and found it soothing and inspiring to listen to nonreligious episodes. New routines can also include discovering bands that are known for their support of atheists, such as Mashrou’ Leila, or doing push-ups when told to pray. One interviewee also shared that she started to paint faces and got a dog, something she had abstained from when she was still religious.

For some, these practices are a crucial part of their transition from being religious to being nonreligious, such as drinking one's first beer to mark one's exit from Islam. For others, the change is less radical. For them, partying and drinking would defeat the purpose, as it was not the reason why they left Islam. Other interviewees felt that they have to show that leading a ‘cosmopolitan lifestyle’ and being Moroccan can go well together. They strongly opposed the view that their way of life was ‘Western’, as they were sometimes accused by fellow citizens. As these practices are not necessarily limited to nonbelievers, the focus on daily life illustrates that the relationship between religious and nonreligious norms is one of fluid coexistence (Schielke 2009). As Muslims are not always pious, nonbelievers are not always immoral, anti-religious, or rational (Engelke 2015). New practices can also form a continuum with old practices. Sometimes a practice remains the same, such as drinking alcohol or having a relationship, but one feels less guilty about it.

How different people disengage from religious practices and how this is perceived also depends on intersectional aspects. For instance, gender expectations differ regarding mosque attendance and clothing (Crenshaw 2017; Sadiqi 2016). While Mouad's physical appearance did not change, Sara's struggle with belief was visible in her wish to no longer wear the veil, something she had to negotiate with her family. Moreover, perceived nationality and ethnic background as Amazigh8 or Arab can also influence how nonreligion is experienced in Morocco (Ben-Layashi 2007). Some Imazighen distance themselves from Islam by pointing out the historical expansion of Islam to Morocco in the seventh century. In contrast to Arab or Amazigh Moroccans, foreigners or ‘foreign-looking’ Moroccans experience fewer problems with being nonreligious. For instance, out of a group of francophone Moroccan friends, two friends ‘white-passed’ and were served in a cafe during Ramadan, while one was refused service, as the waiter said she must be Moroccan.

Also eating habits are a tangible starting point to study lived nonreligion (Harvey 2013). Food customs can both reveal and contest group membership (Salonen 2018). In Morocco, tensions can arise when former Muslims consume something that is considered haram (impure) or eat in public during Ramadan. Pork is difficult to access and only available in a few shops scattered across bigger cities, such as Tangier. Alcohol is relatively accessible, although it is mostly sold out of sight, in male-dominated places like the basement of the French supermarket Carrefour. While Moroccans often stockpile alcohol before Ramadan begins, foreigners can access alcohol even during Ramadan in diplomacy shops or restaurants.

Everyday practices are also impacted by the societal and legal affordances in Morocco that restrict liberties in ways that also affect nonbelievers and other citizens. This includes prohibiting women perceived to be Muslim from marrying non-Muslim men (Moudawana §39), the promotion of nonreligious ideas that “shake the faith of a Muslim” (Penal Code §220), and breaking the fast in public (Penal Code §222). Naturally, this can vary greatly across the country. While in some tourist towns, such as Essaouira, and in larger cities, it is possible to find places that provide takeaway options during Ramadan, it is more difficult to find open restaurants in smaller cities. Even within one city, some citizens in wealthy neighborhoods can continue to eat at restaurants, whereas by doing so in a working-class district just a few kilometers away “you would risk your life.” As such, nonreligious practices are not merely characterized by personal preference, but also by the fluctuating spatial and cultural affordances within the public sphere.

Many nonbelievers eventually leave the country or move out of their parent's house to carry out a more ‘liberal’ way of life instead of leading a ‘double life’. Out of the research group I interviewed for the first time in 2016,9 half of the interviewees had moved abroad by 2022. Others try to find new niches. These lived spaces can be meeting places for like-minded nonbelievers (Lefebvre 1991). For example, many cities have a cafe that provides a relatively safe space for former Muslims, the LGBTQ+ community, and other minorities. Some bars and clubs are obscured by curtains or mirrored glass and prohibit the taking of photos. In this way, people who enter these spaces are protected from prying eyes.

Soufiane, an artist himself, described the artistic underground scene: “There's also this anarchist festival in Ouarzazate where a lot of people meet. It's in the middle of the desert. When you get in, there's a banner saying: ‘anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia’, and when you agree with that you can enter.” In some cases, the personal homes of nonreligious activists double up as safe havens for minority groups. At the same time, Facebook groups have become essential daily online spaces for nonbelievers. Hidden and public, local and international Facebook groups attract many former Muslims and provide a space for vivid discussions, jokes, advice, and meet-ups.

Activist claims acknowledge the importance of having the possibility to pursue a ‘nonreligious’ lifestyle. Activism often focuses less on ‘freedom of conscience’ and more on concrete individual liberties, such as the legalization of having a relationship without being married, including the possibility of cohabiting and staying at hotels together. Another widespread claim is the possibility to eat publicly during Ramadan. Many nonreligious activists also put forward the right to abortion, call for the decriminalization of being queer, and want to change inheritance law, which disadvantages female family members.

In a context, where the possibilities to engage in nonreligious activism are limited, most nonbelievers opt for other ways to negotiate, resist, and circumvent religious and societal constraints. By breaking the rules in their everyday lives and finding loopholes to be nonreligious, practices that would otherwise be frowned upon become slowly legitimized. In contrast to public protest, where actors make use of extraordinary actions that go beyond daily routines, non-movements are made up of mundane practices that are “part and parcel” of everyday life (Bayat 2013). This includes fragmented but similar ‘nonreligious’ practices in everyday places, such as taxis, cafes, and hanuts (shops), as well as online spaces, such as Facebook (Bayat 2007; 2013). These practices are not always intended to be acts of resistance and nonbelievers do not coordinate these actions. Yet, through these small acts, they do notice each other's existence and shared struggles. For example, Sara immediately remarked that we were not the only ones being outside during ftour. Interviewees also often notice if there's another nonreligious person in the room. This might become visible by embodied and vocalised hints, such as neglecting religious dress codes, making nonreligious jokes, or not following religious eating and drinking rules. The mere fact of ‘being nonreligious’ can be a way to deconstruct stereotypes and to normalize the existence and presence of nonreligious Moroccans. For instance, Mouad recounted that being friendly and talking openly about being nonreligious is his way of deconstructing negative ideas about nonbelievers. The force of this activism lies precisely in its ordinary and mundane nature which is difficult to prevent by authorities. Ultimately, these small acts may have a carryover effect which might make it easier for others to lead a ‘nonreligious’ life (Bayat 2007). This applies not only to structural reforms on a societal level but also to small-scale changes in one's immediate surroundings. For instance, one might pave the way for younger siblings who would like to take a similar path.

Embodiment

[Clothes] are so close to our bodies for so much of the time they become like an extension of that body, an outer layer or shell with which we confront the social world. (Dant 1999: 85)

When Hirschkind (2011) posed the question if there is a secular body, he came to the conclusion that a secular body cannot be defined by a determinant number of embodied expressions. While there is no predetermined set of expressions of the nonreligious body either, nonreligion can be an embodied and performed experience. Especially in contexts where it is considered inappropriate to talk critically about religion, dressing can be an alternative way of not complying with religious norms. Leaving religion can involve the removal of religious signs, such as opting for a new nickname instead of the given religious birth name, taking off the veil, or shaving one's beard. The nonreligious body is also marked by the absence of religious signs (Lee 2015), such as the prayer bump (zebibah). Yet, the nonreligious body can also be a site for the expression of nonreligious identity. While there is no fixed nonreligious dress code, it is not uncommon to wear ripped jeans or short dresses and to have ‘unusual’ haircuts, tattoos, or piercings. For some female interviewees, smoking a cigarette or going to the beach in a bikini were ways to challenge religious norms.

Clothes can serve as boundary markers and a battleground over authority, for instance between religious parents and nonreligious children. The solution to this ‘discord’ is to make dress choices situational, such as bringing a spare ‘haram’ outfit to a club while opting for a ‘halal’ outfit in the family's presence. This allows people to dress in ways that their families would not approve of and then change back into religiously accepted attire before arriving home. The body switches then between being a space for (secret) dissent and conformity. When I met one of my interviewees at the McDonald's in Rabat, far away from her hometown, she appeared with dyed blond hair, but told me that in her village she wears a veil. In addition to that, she has two Facebook profiles; one with a veil and one with a fake profile picture. For her, leading this ‘double life’ is mentally exhausting but it is the prize she is willing to pay for pursuing some freedom and at the same time keeping up the relationship with her family.

While certain embodiments are associated with nonbelievers and others with believers, a focus on embodiment proves once more that the boundary should be seen as permeable. Naturally, Muslims can also experiment with different clothes. Sometimes nonreligious material forms also go unnoticed, because they are not explicit or because not everyone is familiar with them. Yet, many interviewees told me they could sense in the way someone dressed and acted, whether the person was religious or nonreligious. For instance, if someone used plenty of religious expressions, such as ‘it's God's plan’, chances are high that the person is religious, whereas someone making jokes about religion could be alluding to nonreligious ideas. If the interlocutors’ reaction were to laugh and go along with the joke, it would be a hint of sharing similar views.

Studying lived nonreligion from an embodied perspective challenges, once more, the idea that leaving religion is a merely intellectual process (Vliek 2021). While religion is often associated with the body, nonreligion is rather linked to the mind. Consequently, a false dichotomy is created between religion being based on emotions and nonreligion on intellectual stances. Paying attention to the embodiment and emotions of nonreligion helps to counter the body-mind dualism that is often linked to a Western bias that prioritizes privatized forms of belief and that provides only an incomplete notion of lived nonreligion.

The human body plays a key role not only in carrying nonreligious symbols but also in showing emotions (Bowie 2006). Leaving Islam can be an emotional rollercoaster, as Islam often plays a crucial role while growing up. “Doing the research” and posing questions about Islam takes a lot of energy; it can lead to an identity crisis, anxiety, and in some rare cases, even to suicidal thoughts. Several interviewees described how they could not sleep for days and kept overthinking and checking arguments for and against Islam. One interviewee used the following metaphor: “It's like your computer software suddenly doesn't work anymore. First, it has some bugs until it finally crashes.” Especially in contexts in which nonreligion is less accepted, nonbelievers develop coping mechanisms to deal with isolation and misrecognition (Lee 2015).

For Alihah, a young professional from Tangier, leaving Islam was an emotional and relational journey that redefined her own identity, borders, and relationship with her family. According to her, “to be perceived as a good Muslim according to society, I should just let people see me going in- or outside the mosque, ideally wearing the veil.” To a certain extent, having doubts was allowed, as long as this was not publicly expressed. As she had previously been wearing the veil, it was not possible to keep her doubting process invisible:

The first time I went out on the street without the veil I felt like I was naked and that everyone was looking at me. It felt weird, guilty, and embarrassing. I took the hijab off behind my parents’ backs, and as we live in the same city, I was afraid to meet them by chance. So I decided to tell them. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. One day, when we stopped at a gas station, I went to the toilet, I took off the veil, and I remember it was a very scary life-changing situation. I was just stuttering and shaking.

When Alihah said she would take off the veil, her mother said she thought she was just thinking out loud and did not expect her to really do it.

Many nonbelievers are worried about hurting their family's feelings. Becoming nonreligious can provoke quite emotional reactions from parents, from crying to, in one case, even a cardiac crisis. Alihah first got the ‘silent treatment’, as her mother ignored her and stopped talking to her for a while. Her brother reacted differently and shamed her for not praying by claiming, “she's just lazy.” Later the relationship with her family improved: “We're all living in the same house, but we think differently. Imagine if everyone would think and do the same in one family—that would be fishy.” Alihah's narrative shows the emotional journey of becoming nonreligious, not only for herself, but also for her family.

Despite the perception of nonreligion as something ideational, nonreligion can be objectified in many ways and nonreligious signs are visible in both private and public spaces (Meyer 2012). When visiting the homes of several interviewees, the material aspects of nonreligion were visible. Many showed me books they found inspiring, ranging from philosophy books to autobiographies of known nonbelievers. Also, CDs from bands with nonreligious members or music that is associated with being nonreligious, such as black or heavy metal, can be markers of nonreligious identities (Hecker 2011). Protest placards also sometimes decorate the homes of nonreligious activists. As the examples have illustrated, nonreligion is clearly manifested in embodied, emotional, and material aspects.

Nuances of the Lived Nonreligion Approach

So far, we have seen that reflecting on the everyday and embodied facets of nonreligion can offer new perspectives on the lifeworlds of ‘ordinary’ nonbelievers. Yet, a shift toward lived nonreligion does not mean a complete turn away from other approaches toward studying nonreligion. In place of binary conceptualizations, the lived (non)religion framework enables us to grasp complexity by paying attention to “institutions and persons, texts and rituals, practices and theology, things and ideas” (Orsi 2003: 172). In applying this approach to the study of nonreligion, we can observe how several nonbelievers seek connection on Facebook pages, activist organizations, or dialogue groups that can be seen as institutional equivalents of nonbelieving.

Likewise, the focus on everyday life does not imply that only acts taking place on a daily basis should be given consideration. Handling a broad perception of the everyday, institutional, and festive occasions, such as Ramadan, require particular attention. Also, ‘coming out’ as nonreligious can be a crucial turning point, and rituals commemorating major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, are seen as critical ‘tests’ for nonbelievers (Copeman and Quack 2015). It is, thus, important to include both daily practices and specific occasions in the conception of the everyday.

While more attention to ‘ordinary’ nonbelievers is needed, we should also not dismiss the validity of those who follow other ontologies (Fadil and Fernando 2015). The idea behind the lived nonreligion approach is to grasp as many perspectives as possible, comprising nonbelievers that have long been off the research radar. Yet, this does not imply that more outspoken nonbelievers should be excluded. Besides, the fact that outspoken atheists and activists also engage in ordinary daily practices, their activism can provide rich material for studying the embodied, emotional, and material aspects of nonreligion. For instance, during several activist meetups that I attended, participants were wearing t-shirts embodying slogans such as “Kafir - Thanks to God I'm an Atheist” or “Allah is lesbian”. These meetings also created a strong emotional bonding among the activists by cheering, laughing, and crying together when sharing their thoughts on religion. Moreover, nonreligion was creatively performed and materialised in rap, visual art, photo exhibitions, spatial installations, comedy, movies, and poems.

On another note, while some practices oppose religion in general, others only have meaning within a specific religious context. In these cases, it might be better to speak of concrete forms, such as lived ‘non-Islam’. For instance, ‘not praying’ might be considered a nonreligious act within different religious traditions, whereas eating pork or drinking alcohol are more specific to a Muslim-majority context.

By stepping outside the religion-equals-belief-framework, one might ask if the lens is becoming too all-encompassing, as there are some aspects considered to have nonreligious meaning that would not unanimously be seen as nonreligious acts. Not everyone would regard drinking a beer or having a tattoo as intrinsically nonreligious. Therefore, it is important to pose questions, such as what characterizes a nonreligious practice? When and by whom is something perceived as nonreligious? A situational approach, emic perspectives, and the intentions (niyya) behind practices help to define whether a practice can be seen as nonreligious.

Intentions are crucial, as lived nonreligion is not always easily detectable. In a Muslim- majority context such as Morocco, nonreligion remains almost invisible, except for some vocal activists. From the outside, many Moroccan nonbelievers might seem to be indistinct from their Muslim co-citizens: they pray, go to the mosque, fast, and even sometimes wear the veil. In these cases, their nonreligion could be wrongly perceived as lived religion when it might better be described as unlived nonreligion. For instance, Soufiane recounted: “When I was young, I practiced only because of my mum but not out of my own interest. Does that count as a religious practice? A bit of fasting, a little bit of praying. Only when I was 11 or 12 did I do Ramadan. But even then, I was already stealing cookies from the kitchen.”

At the same time, not all supposedly nonreligious acts are carried out as a means of rebuffing religion. For example, someone might not perform the hajj due to financial, health, or political reasons and not because they identify as nonreligious. The same is valid for other occasions, such as fasting during Ramadan, from which people are exempted when sick, pregnant, or on their period. Other acts of non-participation might be more related to questioning the parent's or state's authority in transmitting religion. One might also believe in God (theoretical theism) but simply not follow rituals and practices (practical atheism) (Oustinova-Stjepanovic 2015).

Conclusion

This article has explored how ethnographers can make sense of the complexity of nonreligious experiences. In line with a growing number of scholars, I have argued that more attention should be paid to lived forms of nonreligion. The ethnographic study of nonreligion can gain from the lived religion framework by shedding light on the subtle, fluid, and diverse expressions of (non)religion, challenging binary assumptions about religiosity.

First, by including ordinary nonbelievers, more attention is paid to the manifold (non)religious positions that are not always clearly formulated, outspoken, or coherent but rather relational, syncretic, and at times contradictory. An emic perspective creates an in-depth understanding of diverse meaning-making processes that challenges the dualistic categories and associations of being religious or not. Looking at the narratives of Moroccan nonbelievers shows that they often combine religious and nonreligious ideas in a flexible and creative way and have many aspects in common with their Muslim contemporaries.

Second, an emphasis on daily practices reveals the changing and complex nature of lived (non)religion. A focus on actual practices in private and public spaces illustrates how people navigate being nonreligious. Looking at lived nonreligion makes clear that the act of leaving religion comprises more than simply the absence of religion. It is an incorporation of new behaviors and ideas, which can range from ways of speaking to dating preferences. To live out their nonreligion, many nonbelievers move abroad or search for safe everyday spaces, such as private Facebook groups and cafes. Becoming nonreligious also brings into question consumption habits, such as drinking alcohol or eating pork. Just like Muslims, nonbelievers negotiate for themselves and in relation to others which practices they would like to engage in and under which terms.

Finally, nonreligion is often perceived as a pursuit of the mind. However, as the narratives of Sara, Mouad, and others revealed, lived nonreligion is closely related to feelings. Leaving Islam is often not an easy choice and can lead to strong emotional reactions from oneself and from those in one's surroundings. Aside from emotions, the absence of religious signs and the presence of nonreligious symbols can mark the body. Embodiment challenges once more the binary divide, as there is no fixed dress code for either Muslims or nonbelievers. While becoming nonreligious does not lead to a predefined new lifestyle, in most cases it does provoke renegotiation and reflection on (non)religious practices that can impact what you wear, what you eat, and whom you love.

Acknowledgments

This article has been enriched both by the numerous conversations with my research interviewees and by the theoretical discussions with the other authors and editors of this volume, as well as with my supervisors Karin van Nieuwkerk and Araceli González Vázquez. It has also been developed with the insights of my colleagues Rayane Al-Rammal, Rukayyah Reichling, Elaheh Habibi, and Eleonora Landucci. This research was funded by H2020 MSCA, ITN-MIDA 813547.

Notes

1

WANA refers to West Asia and North Africa.

2

(Non)religion written with brackets underlines the fluidity of religious and nonreligious positions and practices.

3

Conversation with Kacem El Ghazzali via Skype, 7 December 2016.

4

This does not imply that humanism is restricted to nonbelievers. Humanism has neither an intrinsic religious nor a nonreligious nature and can be defined differently.

5

Sherif Ghaber is a nonreligious activist from Egypt.

6

Hamed Abdel-Samad is a German-Egyptian critic of Islam.

7

Hicham Nostik is a Moroccan author and atheist.

8

Imazighen are an ethnic group in several North African and West African countries.

9

In 2016 I conducted, partly together with Tessa Ubels, twenty interviews about the experiences of young nonbelievers in Morocco.

References

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Luehrmann, Sonja. 2011. Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mahmood, Saba. 2015. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nostik, Hicham. 2020. Notes of a Moroccan Infidel. [In Arabic.] Rabat: Dar Alwatan.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Oustinova-Stjepanovic, Galina. 2015. “Confessional Anthropology.” Social Analysis 59 (2): 114134. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2015.590207

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2010. “An Assessment of the Role of Early Parental Loss in the Adoption of Atheism or Irreligion.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32 (3): 375396. https://doi.org/10.1163/157361210X533292

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Przybylski, Liz. 2020. Hybrid Ethnography: Online, Offline, and In Between. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.

  • Rachik, Hassan, and Mohamed Tozy. 2007. Islam in Everyday Life: An Investigation of Religious Values and Practices in Morocco. [In French.] Rabat: Marsam Éditions.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sadiqi, Fatima. 2016. “Female Perceptions of Islam in Today's Morocco.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 11: 4660.

  • Salonen, Anna S. 2018. “Living and Dealing with Food in an Affluent Society—A Case for the Study of Lived (Non)Religion.” Religions 9 (10): 306321. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9100306

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, Samuli. 2009. “Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians.” Journal of Religion in Africa 39 (2): 158185. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006609X427814

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, Samuli. 2010. “Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Make Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life.” ZMO Working Paper 2: 116.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 2018. Moving In and Out of Islam. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

  • Vliek, Maria. 2020. Neither in nor Out. Former Muslims between Narratives of Belonging and Secular Convictions in the Netherlands and the UK.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vliek, Maria. 2021. “(Re)negotiating Embodiment when Moving Out of Islam: An Empirical Inquiry into ‘a Secular Body’.” In Transforming Bodies and Religions: Powers and Agencies in Europe, ed. Mariecke van den Berg, Lieke L. Schrijvers, and Jelle O. Wiering, 159177. Abingdon: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Voas, David. 2009. “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe.” European Sociological Review 25 (2): 155168. https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcn044

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Contributor Notes

LENA RICHTER has a background in anthropology and migration studies and is based between the Netherlands, Germany, and Morocco. As an Early Stage Researcher, she is involved in the project ‘Mediating Islam in the Digital Age’ (H2020 MSCA ITN-MIDA). Within this framework, she is conducting comparative research about nonreligious activism in Morocco and among the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. ORCID: 0000-0003-4521-3029.

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Advances in Research

  • Ammerman, Nancy T. 2016. “Lived Religion as an Emerging Field: An Assessment of its Contours and Frontiers.” Nordic Journal of Religion & Society 29 (2): 8399. https://doi.org/10.18261

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • An-Na'im, Abdullahi A. 2008. Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Asad, Talal. (1986) 2009. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Qui parle 17 (2): 130. https://doi.org/10.5250/quiparle.17.2.1

  • Bailey, Edward. 2010. “Implicit Religion.” Religion 40 (4): 271278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.religion.2010.07.002

  • Bayat, Asef. 2007. “A women's non-movement: What it means to be a woman activist in an Islamic state.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27(1): 160172.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bayat, Asef. 2013. Life as politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East. Stanford University Press.

  • Ben-Layashi, Samir. 2007. “Secularism in the Moroccan Amazigh Discourse.” The Journal of North African Studies 12 (2): 153171. https://doi.org/10.1080/13629380701201741

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Binder, Stefan. 2016. “‘Let Us Become Human through Beef and Pork’: Atheist Humanism and the Aesthetics of Caste.” South Asia Chronicle 6: 205227. http://dx.doi.org/10.18452/8521.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bowie, Fiona. 2006. The Anthropology of Religion. Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363368. https://doi.org/10.1080/13537900802373114

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cannell, Fenella. 2010. “The Anthropology of Secularism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 85100. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105039.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Copeman, Jacob, and Johannes Quack. 2015. “Godless People and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism.” Social Analysis 59 (2): 4061. https://doi:10.3167/sa.2015.590203

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cottee, Simon. 2015. The Apostates: When Muslims leave Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2015. “Without God yet not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-religion among Scottish University Students.” In Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins, 171193. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2017. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: The New Press.

  • Dant, Tim. 1999. Material Culture in the Social World: Values, Activities, Lifestyles. London: Open University Press.

  • Engelke, Matthew. 2015. “‘Good without God’: Happiness and Pleasure among the Humanists.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (3): 6991. http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.005

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. London: Oxford University Press.

  • Halafoff, Anna, Heather Shipley, Pamela D. Young, Andrew Singleton, Mary L. Rasmussen, and Gary Bouma. 2020. “Complex, Critical and Caring: Young People's Diverse Religious, Spiritual and Non-Religious Worldviews in Australia and Canada.” Religions 11 (4): 166178. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11040166

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, Graham. 2013. Food, Sex and Strangers. Understanding Religion as Everyday Life. Durham: Acumen.

  • Fadil, Nadia, and Mayanthi Fernando. 2015. “Rediscovering the ‘Everyday’ Muslim: Notes on An Anthropological Divide.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2): 5988. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.005

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hecker, Pierre. 2011. “Contesting Islamic Concepts of Morality: Heavy Metal in Istanbul.” In Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theater: Artistic Developments in the Muslim World, ed. Karin Van Nieuwkerk, 5584. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hirschkind, Charles. 2011. “Is there a Secular Body?Cultural Anthropology 26 (4): 633647. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01116.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Karim, Karim H. 1997. “The Historical Resilience of Primary Stereotypes: Core Images of the Muslim Other.” In The Language and Politics of Exclusion: Others in Discourse, ed. Stephen H. Riggins, 153182. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, Lois. 2015. “Ambivalent Atheist Identities: Power and Non-religious Culture in Contemporary Britain.” Social Analysis 59 (2): 2039.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Luehrmann, Sonja. 2011. Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mahmood, Saba. 2015. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

  • Meyer, Birgit. 2012. Mediation and the Genesis of Presence: Towards a Material Approach to Religion. Utrecht: University of Utrecht.

  • Mumford, Lorna. 2015. “Living Non-religious Identity in London.” In Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins, 153170. Cham: Springer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nostik, Hicham. 2020. Notes of a Moroccan Infidel. [In Arabic.] Rabat: Dar Alwatan.

  • Orsi, Robert A. 2003. “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live in? Special Presidential Plenary Address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, November 2, 2000.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42 (2): 169174. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5906.t01-1-00170

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Oustinova-Stjepanovic, Galina. 2015. “Confessional Anthropology.” Social Analysis 59 (2): 114134. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2015.590207

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2010. “An Assessment of the Role of Early Parental Loss in the Adoption of Atheism or Irreligion.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32 (3): 375396. https://doi.org/10.1163/157361210X533292

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Przybylski, Liz. 2020. Hybrid Ethnography: Online, Offline, and In Between. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.

  • Rachik, Hassan, and Mohamed Tozy. 2007. Islam in Everyday Life: An Investigation of Religious Values and Practices in Morocco. [In French.] Rabat: Marsam Éditions.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sadiqi, Fatima. 2016. “Female Perceptions of Islam in Today's Morocco.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 11: 4660.

  • Salonen, Anna S. 2018. “Living and Dealing with Food in an Affluent Society—A Case for the Study of Lived (Non)Religion.” Religions 9 (10): 306321. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9100306

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, Samuli. 2009. “Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians.” Journal of Religion in Africa 39 (2): 158185. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006609X427814

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, Samuli. 2010. “Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Make Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life.” ZMO Working Paper 2: 116.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 2018. Moving In and Out of Islam. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

  • Vliek, Maria. 2020. Neither in nor Out. Former Muslims between Narratives of Belonging and Secular Convictions in the Netherlands and the UK.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vliek, Maria. 2021. “(Re)negotiating Embodiment when Moving Out of Islam: An Empirical Inquiry into ‘a Secular Body’.” In Transforming Bodies and Religions: Powers and Agencies in Europe, ed. Mariecke van den Berg, Lieke L. Schrijvers, and Jelle O. Wiering, 159177. Abingdon: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Voas, David. 2009. “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe.” European Sociological Review 25 (2): 155168. https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcn044

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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