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Faith to Faithless

Watch Imtiaz Shams and Aliah Saleem describe their work with people leaving high control religions
So Faith to Faithless basically is a charity programme that helps people who are apostates. Apostates are people who leave religions. We focus on people who leave high control religious groups, is what we call it. It raises awareness about the prejudice and discrimination that they face. It offers training and it also creates social groups or social events that people can go to so they can meet like-minded individuals who are going through very similar experiences to them.
Well, I suppose I grew up in a traditional Muslim family and I went to religious schools, so I had a thorough religious education - an Islamic one. And then as I reached towards my twenties, I started to have doubts. At first, I was, I would suppose, I felt very anxious about my doubt. I felt like I was doing something very wrong, so I felt very guilty and ashamed to speak to other people about it, so, I thought, I made myself quite isolated. When I left religion, I really, really felt like I was the only one who left Islam and as ridiculous as it sounds, you know, with 1.6-1.7 billion Muslims out there, I just didn’t know you could do it.
And then when people around me did find out so when friends found out, I lost a lot of my Muslim friends, which was very difficult for me. And my family found out as well. And, you know, it didn’t go down well. So, it was difficult and it’s taken a lot of time, a lot of support from people around me, a lot of healing to get to a place where I’m quite comfortable and happy with myself and my beliefs.
So a big, big part of the problem is there’s an advantage for these high control religious groups to act like no one leaves, or to make leaving such an unpleasant experience that no one wants to do it. I suppose that the transition of going from, you know, one religion to another or from one religion to non-religion can be quite difficult. It can be confusing. It can be isolating. It can lead to mental health issues if it’s not tackled early, such as depression or anxiety. There’s also the fear of physical or emotional abuse. So, the emotional abuse can definitely lead to mental health challenges.
And I’ve seen young people that have come to me at the very early stages of their apostasy and who have then told their families and then have been rejected or have been emotionally, if not physically, abused. One of the questions I ask especially to ex-Muslims is, you know, do you think your family will harm you? And even the ones who talk very fondly about their family, some of them think and go ‘oh, I don’t know’. And they can’t ask that question truthfully. So, because, families can do crazy things if they feel like they’re losing their child. But for a lot of other people, it’s not the risk of that.
It’s ‘I love my Mum or my Dad so much that I’m worried I’m going to ruin their life by telling them about who I am’.
For me, what we really care about is putting stories of people like myself out there, so that other people don’t feel like they’re the only one when they leave. I think one of the beautiful things about Faith to Faithless is that it allowed people to connect with each other and to get to know each other in many ways. One, it allowed people to make friends on a social level. People that didn’t necessarily want to sit and go to, perhaps, a panel discussion, but they just wanted to meet up and perhaps do something social and not feel alone, because, you know, apostates, there is a potential that apostates are estranged from their loved ones, and therefore need that connection.
The second thing we do is train institutions. So, you know, we will train the police, we’ll train the NHS, the National Health Service, in how to recognise apostasy, how to help apostates better, and how to make sure that we are taken care of properly, like anyone else going through their institutions.
What it has done is that it has allowed me to really work on something that I’m deeply passionate about, something that I will always be passionate about. Because what I’m trying to do, I suppose, is make the world a better place for people like me. You know, I wish that this was here when I was 19, so I didn’t have to spend so many years feeling completely on my own. And it’s really nice to see the world changed in your lifetime. It’s not something I think everyone has the privilege of seeing.
And I really think, and I really believe, that in the next couple of years, apostasy will become much more understood as a normalised form of discrimination, rather than, right now, where no-one even knows what we go through.

Aliyah Saleem and Imtiaz Shams are the co-founders of Faith to Faithless, a programme of Humanists UK working to reduce the stigma faced by people leaving religion (apostates).

Apostasy is the disaffiliation from, or renunciation of, a religion or cult. It may be used to mean converting from one religion to another, or leaving religion entirely. It may also be used by religious groups as a derogatory label to identify someone perceived as no longer following the traditions of that religion to their expected standard. Faith to Faithless work with apostates from high-control religions (such as ex-Charedi Jews and ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses), as well as those from high-control sects within religions that are otherwise more progressive (such as some groups within Islam).

In 2018 the Faith to Faithless programme won a London Faith & Belief Community Award within the Health & Wellbeing category for its work providing support to vulnerable Londoners.

The diagram in the ‘The Stages of Apostasy’ download below shows some of the possible emotions expressed by apostates on the journey from one identity to another.

Question: How can we make it easier for people to feel confident to talk about their beliefs and their questions about them?

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