Malaysia’s Atheists: Malaysia’s Atheists: Endangered Species or Quietly Burgeoning?

July 13, 2016

Malaysia’s Atheists:  Malaysia’s Atheists: Endangered Species or Quietly Burgeoning?

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Although we have detailed statistics on most subjects of importance in the country, we do not yet have a definitive set of statistical data on the religious beliefs and affiliation of Malaysians. The closest we have to a reliable breakdown of the country’s population by religious belief is somewhat dated as it is derived from the country’s last census. 

According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3 percent of the population practice Islam; 19.8 % Buddhism; 9.2 % Christianity; 6.3 % Hinduism; and 1.3 % traditional Chinese religions. From the official statistics, it appears that the official major religious groupings add up to 97.9% of the country’s 30 million population today, leaving a tiny minority of 2% or about 600,000 Malaysians belonging to the category of non-believers in God or those adhering to non-religious systems of belief.

Surprisingly, the official data has included the followers of Sikhism together with the tiny minority professing non-religious faiths such as animism, folk religion, and other belief systems. Recent estimates place the size of the Sikh community at 350,000 members. Should this number be taken out of the over 600,000 Malaysians adhering to folk, animistic or non-religious systems, this leaves a total of at most 300,000 Malaysians professing to belong to what may be described as other non-religious belief systems or belief systems that do not believe in God.

Is this very small number according to the official count reliable or believable? Or are there more atheist or agnostic Malaysians who, for various reasons, have been missed out in our national profiling?

Before we can answer this question, it is necessary to point out that religions and beliefs are difficult to survey. They involve subject matters that are held by respondents to be deeply personal and hence the outcomes may be influenced by the way questions are worded, the methodology used or by other factors.

Among the reasons why the very small official number can be regarded as an under-estimate is that the drafters of the Rukun Negara thought it necessary to place the principle, ‘Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan’ or ‘ Belief In God’ as the foremost tenet to guide and unite Malaysians of the various religions. 

This may have resulted in our census authorities being predisposed or biased towards identifying their Malaysian respondents as believing in God rather than to be more open towards the opposite possibility. Or perhaps the respondents themselves may have taken the line of least resistance and concurred that they belong to some faith group for fear of official disapproval.

An important factor explaining why the number of self-described atheists in Malaysia are few is because of state and societal discrimination and disapproval. There is presently no official secular organization in the country and, under the present government, no likelihood that such an organization will be allowed to be set up.

Despite the official efforts directed at discouraging the spread of atheism, some attempts have been made at bringing together individuals from this grouping. An internet website called “Malaysian Atheists” was set up recently in response to the need for the country’s atheists “to come together and be recognized as a significant segment of a society dominated by religious peoples and state-supported religious laws, policies and bodies” (see There is also an informal grouping in Facebook group known as MAFA (Malaysian Atheist Freethinkers and Agnostics) that was once active but is now apparently defunct.

Both of these initiatives have had to operate well beneath the official radar because of the recent increase in state discrimination against atheists and those with non-religious beliefs.

Although some estimates indicate that the number of atheists and non-believers has further declined in Malaysia, there is reason to dispute these estimates if we consider the world wide trend of growing agnosticism and atheism.

According to the 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of the population in nine European countries surveyed, as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God was a necessary part of being moral. This figure was as high as 85% in France and 80% in Spain. The young and the university-educated were found to be more likely to hold this view in many countries.

In the two countries which are frequently used as proxies for the developed countries of the world, the trend towards being non-religious or religiously unaffiliated is clearly growing.

According to National Public Radio (NPR), an American privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization that serves a network of 900 public radio stations in the US, one-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. This is a higher proportion than at any time in recent U.S. history with those younger than 30 especially drifting away from organized religion. A third of young Americans also say they don’t belong to any religion.

In Britain a WIN/Gallup poll in 2014 found that its citizens were very skeptical on the benefits of religion. Only a third of British respondents saw religion as a force for good, whilst over a quarter believed it to exert a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religions was negative. The same poll found that 36% of the world’s population could be defined as non-religious, with 13% of that self-defining as atheists – a significant increase on previous years.

Current Trend of State-Led Hate Against Atheists

Amid the global decline in religious belief, some governments have been stepping up efforts to portray atheists and secularists as a danger to society and even as terrorists

A recent study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a United Nations-accredited NGO that promotes the welfare and growth of humanist, atheist, rationalist, free thought and similar groups around the world has pointed to “hate campaigns” against those who renounce the dominant or state religion in Muslim nations.

The latest IHEU’s annual survey on discrimination and persecution against non-religious people has noted that “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers” as set out in UN treaties and that 13 Muslim states had made apostasy or blasphemy against religion a capital offense.

Back home in Malaysia, the report noted that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has branded humanism, secularism and liberalism as “deviant” and a “threat to Islam and the state” – see

There is little doubt that the Prime Minister’s unprecedented attack against atheists and free thinkers has been responsible for the charge that Malaysia, together with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are “the worst places [in the world] to be an atheist” (


12 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Atheists: Malaysia’s Atheists: Endangered Species or Quietly Burgeoning?

  1. I have been an atheist for many years.

    Atheism equals freedom from human-created systems of mental and socio-cultural imprisonment.

    A person can live a moral life (following one’s conscience) without any religion or believing in all the non-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Also, no need to hate another person because of the person’s religious beliefs any longer.

    Try it and liberate yourselves mentally.

  2. To me, the most important thing is to have a clear conscience and be able to sleep comfortably at night. The life experiences that I have had made me question several of the most important tenets of the faith which I embraced when I was younger.

    And frankly, the interpretation of any religion by men remains just that – interpretation. So, instead of relying on priests or monks or mullahs, or heaven forbids Malaysian muftis to interpret them for me — I read up on most religions and decided to take practice the parts that I deem are good and lets me in good conscience teach my children.

    For example, if you aren’t prepared to bring children into the world and provide for them – please practice birth control regardless of what the church says.
    And if another fellow human doesn’t believe or disagrees with the faith which you practice, wish him well and tell him that you stand ready to explain more if he chooses to find out more more about your faith — there is no need stick labels on them or cut off his head.

    I am particularly attracted to the “Admonition of (the Apostle) Paul” — a central belief and teaching of the Mormons or the Latter Day Saints:
    We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we believe all things, we hope for all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

    These simple words have been illuminating to me and guided me since the day I read them.

    And as I said, sleeping sound at night is important to me.

  3. I dunno’ about liberating one self’s mentally but I do think that under theocratic regimes any kind of “secularism” and “liberalism” is cracked down upon for obvious reasons.

    In liberal Regimes, the so called persecutions extend to the “war against Christmas” variety or bashing Islam because y’know that particular religion causes so much problems (sic).

    For the record, my atheism is based on curiosity not a rejection of God. I believe that atheists should work with like minded people including religious people to encourage a “secular ” state and all those discussion about the existence of God is a distraction and red herring. Not to mention intellectually lazy.

    Also (and this is where I may get into trouble ) I do believe that everybody should have a Jesuit education and then move on from there, like freeing yourself mentally which frankly sounds kind of onanistic 😀

  4. It does not matter if one is a non-believer, atheist or a free-thinker, each is entitled to his journey in life ( or, if you believe or do not believe in another life ). In matters of apocalypse and salvation : To each his own, unto each his due….(nafsi , nafsi ) .

    So, I am trying to portray here , part of the life-journey of Martin Lings as I discover him in the Perennial Books series. He came under the Tutelage of one Al ‘ Arabi Ad-Darqawi from Morroco or Algeria , from the descendant of Ibni’ Al’Arabi , from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad of some distant past. ( Al’ Rumi too) –
    Let me highlight here just one part of his ‘ journey ‘ : Quote :

    Imagination ( waham in Arabic ) , ( or in Malay shyak – waham ) , is a vain thing, but God ordained it with great wisdom in view . Indeed , each thing bears at the same time a great secret and an aspect which is evident , for it is said (in the Koran ) : ‘ Our Lord , Thou didst not create that in vain , be Thou exalted (III , 191 ) , And : Do ye then think We created you in sport ? ( XXIII, 117 ) . Far be such a thing from our Lord . God is above that. It is in the nature of imagination that if you do not bring it under your yoke, that is, impose your way of thinking upon it, it will inevitably dominate you and impose its own way on you; if you do not deny its opinion , it will deny yours. Now, it is nothing ; yet , if you listen to its talk , it will weaken your (spiritual ) certainty, and will turn you away from that into other paths. But if you do not listen to what it says, your inner light will increase; by its in ncrease your certainty will be strengthened , as this becomes stronger , your spiritual will arises and by its arising you will reach your Lord, , and to reach Him is to know Him…..”

  5. I should add that I was once a Christian and after that, some kind of (non-violent) Maoist. So I know Christian theology and Marxism quite well.

    These days, I am a Social Democrat in my political philosophy. I am inspired by the lives and activities of individuals like Sydney and Beatrice Webb, and Clement Attlee (paid my respects to them in Westminster Abbey just a few days ago), Tommy Douglas of Canada (a Christian socialist), Bernie Sanders, Nelson Mandela. Also, the achievements of the Social Democrats in Sweden.

    I feel that “conditional cash transfers” and “Basic Income”
    are some of the most promising ideas circulating amongst moderate Left circles today.

  6. We are missing the point of liberal ideals to help the most disadvantaged. I am unsure, other than Malay atheists, if there are any other atheists from other races who face discriminations in Malaysia.

    For United States, I would agree that there are tax deductions and some land provisions that could be taken away, not unless given religious entity is 100% related to nonreligious services.

    But, for Malaysia, the most disadvantaged are the Malay atheists. But, it may be oxymoron. Even if one could be an atheist, I have yet to see one who denounce his or her bumiputera status in Malaysia.

  7. Quote:
    If you don’t understand how humans can be moral without religion,
    you don’t understand what it means to be moral or human.

  8. Quote:
    Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.
    Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.

  9. Since we are into quotes, let me quote Thomas Edison, (without whom many people here and elsewhere may be reading their Holy Scriptures by candle light), who said, “Religion is all bunk”

    BTW, he also said, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”

    I wouldn’t put it so crudely as the late Mr. Edison. I prefer to be polite and say it is all Mumbo Jumbo.

  10. Quote:- “If you don’t understand how humans can be moral without religion,
    you don’t understand what it means to be moral or human”

    Yes, dogs and cats, we can safely assume, do not have any religion. These animals are a lot more moral than a lot of people who do have a religion of one sort or another.

  11. Only a handful (of people ) on earth are eager, but most are certainly bored , and boredom is caused by Stupidity…..listen again by what Martin Lings and his few ‘ chosen ‘ gang , further elucidate in their life-experiences , under the tutelage of the Al’Darqawy/ Ibnu Al’ Araby order in Morocco –

    ” ….. An-nafs is the soul , as opposed to the heart (al-qalb) ( but distinguish this from the aorta which pumps blood ) . It (an-nafs) signifies the ego-centric passionate soul ‘ it represents respectively the realm of temporal experience and the realm of pure contemplation…..

    An-nafs (the soul ) and ar-ruh (the Spirit ) are two names for one and the same thing, which is made of the very essence of light (but God is wiser ) . It divides into two by virtue of two opposite qualities, namely , purity and confusion. For, so long as it exists , the nafs is confused…..But if its confusion disappears and it becomes pure substance , it is ‘truly’ called ruh . We see besides that they mutually attract one another ….and in principle both are endowed with beauty , virtue and balance . Now if God wishes to sanctify one of His servants , he marries Spirit and soul within him ” , ( and thus remove Confusion & stupidity )…….in order to sanctify or liberate the few chosen ones…… (Martin Lings & gang , the status of those saints who attain perfection…..) – period.

  12. To sanctify as His chosen ones, please ponder what Kahlil Gibran says :

    ‘ Those whom Love has not chosen as followers will not hear when Love calls…..’ –

    In the Wisdom of Muhammad series ( in one of his hadiths ) :

    ” The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr ” –

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