As I’ve written about numerous times, I used to live in Beirut, Lebanon. To be more precise, I lived in Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon, which is the intellectual and artistic capital of Lebanon. Filled with universities, startups, cleverly-themed cafes, and a poet or musician on every corner, Hamra is also about as secular as a city can get. Although the country is sharply divided along sectarian lines, in Hamra religion is as meaningful as the choice between tea and tea with mint. I’ve also written about how many of the people I met in Lebanon were non-religious or atheist but who culturally or ethnically identified as being Sunni, Shia, or Christian. While I wrote about these things freely, deep down I suspected I might have suffered confirmation bias strictly because I was in Hamra. I secretly suspected I might view Lebanon as a lot more religious if I took samples from elsewhere in the country. Well, this hypothesis is only partly right, and it’s mostly wrong.
In 2012 WIN-Gallup International conducted a global survey of religiosity and atheism, which they broke down by country. In Lebanon, their findings suggest (aggregate information on page 15) that only 64% of Lebanese people are religious (meaning they identify as Sunni, Shia, or Christian and actively believe in god), while 33% are not religious, with an additional 2% as strict atheists. While non-religious people do not break the 50% mark, this number is not that far off from my original estimation. In other words, secularism in Lebanon as a whole is pretty much exactly what I discovered while living in Hamra.
This phenomenon as pertaining to Muslims is called cultural Muslims. This is very similar to cultural Jews, who identify as Jewish but do not believe in god, and cultural Christians, who identify as Christian but do not believe in god. This is a fairly common phenomenon.
Interestingly, Lebanon almost perfectly mimics the United States in this regard. In the same poll (see page 16) the US is only 60% religious, 30% irreligious, and 5% atheist. In real life, however, Lebanon does a better job keeping religion separate from policy.
I find these results fascinating, but I feel the answer might still be a little biased. Because of things like family ties, honor, social reputation, discrimination, and others, the actual number of atheists and non-religious people in Lebanon might be significantly higher. Given the option between “non-religious” and “atheist” might offer Lebanese atheists a way to save their reputations by avoiding the A-word. Coming out as atheist in a Muslim family might be social suicide, whilst coming out as non-religious (especially if they still culturally identify as Shia) is an easier way to express your views while still preserving your reputation. Furthermore, if your brother is an active member of Hezbollah, coming out as either non-religious or atheist might be actual suicide. So there’s probably some dishonest answers happening here, but I understand why it happens. And for now I’m happy with these numbers. It gives us something to work with.
On a side note
I decided to investigate this information after speaking to my grandmother last night. A deeply religious woman, she was shocked to learn from me that 50% of American Jews are atheists. Although she believed me, especially when I cited my sources, she couldn’t comprehend the idea of cultural Judaism. Separating theism from Judaism was not something she believed was in the realm of possibilities. I never gave it much thought before; atheist Jews are so commonplace in the US that I figured it was universal knowledge. But after discovering that she had never heard about it, I decided to do more digging, and I came upon the above-cited poll. Thankfully, this investigation answered two questions in one: How is atheism dispersed globally, and was I right about irreligion in Lebanon?
It appears that I was.
I still find it incredibly interesting, however, that non-religion can thrive in this tiny Mediterranean Middle Eastern country. But that’s a post for another day (after a lot more research).
I was interested to see how New Zealand fared in the survey, but was disappointed to discover it wasn’t surveyed. Considering many countries much smaller than NZ were surveyed, its omission is rather surprising. We are considerably less religious than Australia, which would put us fairly high on the list of being a non-religious country.
Until recently, I would never have thought of people identifying themselves with a religion on cultural grounds instead of by faith. But then I often think of myself as Christian, yet I don’t believe in deities or the supernatural, so that would put me firmly in the cultural corner. What really caused me to recognise the difference between faith and culture, was realising that with the renaissance of Māori culture in NZ some of it is being adopted by other sections of NZ society much to the disgust of fundamentalist Christians. They seem to be unable to separate the values and meaning of some practices firmly embedded in Māori culture from their misconceptions of ancient Māori religion.
I’m not surprised that non-religion can survive in Lebanon. With a multitude of faiths, a high level of acceptance/tolerance is necessary if society isn’t going to fracture. Where there’s a high level of tolerance, there is going to be a greater range of religiosity than in less diverse societies.