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People Without Religion. Number of Atheists Grows in Kazakhstan.

According to studies, over 10 years the number of those who consider themselves atheists in Kazakhstan has tripled.


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*This publication was prepared as a series of CABAR.asia articles dedicated to raising awareness on religious diversity in Central Asian countries. The authors do not seek to promote any religion.

According to studies, over 10 years the number of those who consider themselves atheists in Kazakhstan has tripled.

In 2019, the share of non-believers in Kazakhstan was 18.8 per cent of total population, according to the head of the social and political research department of KISI, Alua Zholdybalina. Just over 75 per cent of Kazakhstanis consider themselves believers, but do not perform regular religious rites and are not involved in the activities of any religious associations.

Student Zhalgas Spabekov grew up in a religious family, but since childhood he considered himself an atheist:

Of course, we didn’t attend the mosque every week, but we always celebrated Muslim holidays, my parents were fasting. But since childhood I was an atheist and it’s no secret.

Жалгас Спабеков. Photo: CABAR.asia

In society, there is no discrimination against atheism, but they treat non-believers as inferior people, we are like black sheep. Some treat us with anger, hatred, but I believe that this is the right of every person.

I do not impose my ideas on anyone, I do not violate anything, I do not disturb anyone. There are believers among my friends who drink and smoke and do terrible things. Looking at them, I realised that I should not deceive myself. I have only faith in love, I believe only in myself.

According to Ainur Abdirasilkyzy, director of the Research Centre for Religious Affairs of the Committee on Religious Affairs, 10 years ago, there were only 6 per cent of atheists among the entire population in Kazakhstan. Now this figure has grown 3 times.

Ainur Abdirasilkyzy. Photo: CABAR.asia

She noted that perhaps some people indicated they were atheists in order to avoid troubles.

“The law guarantees the rights of citizens to freedom of religion, as set forth in the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as well as in international acts and agreements on human rights. The freedom to practice religion or to spread beliefs may be limited by law only to protect public order and the safety, life, health, morality or rights and freedoms of other citizens,” Abdirasilkyzy said.

“Spreads harmful ideas”

In March 2013, a criminal case was initiated against the journalist and human rights defender, Aleksandr Kharlamov, in Kazakhstan based on his denial of God and his atheistic ideology.

He was accused of inciting religious hatred and discord under article 164 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In the new version of the code, this is article 174, “The incitement of social, national, generic, racial, class or religious discord”.

The case was based on Kharlamov’s posts on social media, in which he doubted the existence of God. The court found that the majority of the population of Kazakhstan were believers, and the human rights activist expressing his own views on such issues spreads harmful ideas.

Жуматай Алиев. Photo: tuz.kz

The case was later closed, and last year he won a million tenge (2,578 dollars) from the state for unlawful prosecution.

In the same year, ex-deputy of mazhilis of the parliament, Zhumatai Aliev, proposed introducing atheism along with religious studies in educational institutions. After 6 years, he still has the same opinion.

“I think atheism should be taught both in schools and in universities because there is such discipline as religious studies. This is the respect of all citizens of Kazakhstan. It’s high time to introduce this lesson into the school curriculum,” Aliev said.

Владислав Косарев. Photo: CABAR.asia

In 2017, a draft law was developed in Kazakhstan that provided for fines for insulting atheistic beliefs of citizens – up to 300 MCI (about 2 thousand dollars). But the document remained within the walls of the parliament; no decisions were made on it. The legislative branch has a party representing atheism – the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan.

“Atheism is not a new religion. Our programme states clearly: “the communists promote recognition of freedom of conscience, the right to practice any religion or to not practice any religion, to separate the church and mosque from the state, and schools from the church and mosque. At the same time, the communists are conducting widespread atheistic propaganda, avoiding humiliation and insulting the feelings of believers in any form,” deputy of the mazhilis Vladislav Kosarev said.

“I’m an atheist and I’m not ashamed of it”

Pensioner Zhumakyz Toktabekova came to atheism when her husband died and she was left with two children:

I am an atheist and I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t yield to manipulations and I don’t pray, although I respect everyone’s choice. However, some believers think it’s enough to pray to make their lives fine. Also, I don’t believe in heaven and hell. They were made up by people.

Жумакыз Токтабекова. Photo: CABAR.asia

Now religion plays rather negative role. My neighbour doesn’t attend weddings, doesn’t watch TV, prohibits her children from attending school on Saturdays. I don’t think she’s doing right.

I don’t belong to any religion and I think atheists are mostly soviet people. Back in our days, it was prohibited to trust in god, our parents raised us this way. I don’t think atheism disturbs my life. But now religion, in my opinion, has become a tool to earn money.

There are atheists among officials and celebrities of Kazakhstan, including ex-minister of finance Natalia Korzhova, General Bulat Bayekenov.

There’s a group “Community of atheists of Kazakhstan” on VKontakte, where participants share pictures, videos, stories and experience, and also hold surveys.


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»