Being an atheist in Thailand

“You’re not really Thai,” is just one of the many comments I receive when I share that I am an atheist living in Thailand. 

I’ve been one for 15 years, and over the years, some of my religious peers have questioned my dedication to upholding Thai beliefs and customs; after all, renouncing Buddhism is considered a sin to many Thais. 

Thai culture is deeply rooted in religion and superstitious beliefs, with over 90% of Thais being Buddhists in the country – this has led many to think that Buddhism is the official religion, even though there is none.

Becoming an atheist is a personal choice I’ve made based on many factors and experiences in my life. Here’s how it’s like living in a society with a belief system unlike my own.

Disclaimer: This article aims to share my own personal story and opinions, which may differ from others. Names have also been changed for privacy.

More cultural aspects of Thailand:

Finding a belief system that aligned with my values 

Though I had a religious upbringing growing up in a Buddhist family, the truth is that I’ve never truly felt “religious”. 

Thankfully, my family accepted my decision to stop visiting temples and giving alms, which are common practices in Buddhism. Being a good person and not doing anything illegal was more important to them than deciding not to practice religious rites. My closest friends, who are quite religious, also accepted my atheism and still respected me as a fellow Thai. 

Growing up, I broadened my mindset of religion and took the initiative to understand the faith and beliefs of my loved ones’ as well. For example, even though I’ve since renounced Buddhism, I’ve found myself applying the laws of karma to my daily life.

I’m An Atheist In A Religious Country, But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Belong To The CultureImage credit: Prowd Issarasena

I’ve also been lucky enough to have met like-minded people like myself – one of my best friends is Muslim, yet believes in the teachings of Buddha – like karma. She even often visits temples around Thailand to broaden her spirituality, and I respect her openness to learning from other religions despite having the Islamic faith.

She always encouraged me to be a person of goodwill. I felt acknowledged by her telling me, “you’re a Thai who respects every religion, believes in karma, and chooses not to be labelled by a religion”.

Growing up around religion 

I went to a Seventh-day Adventist school, where becoming a “good” Christian was a core part of the curriculum. We were encouraged to practice the religion as often and as prominently as possible – during our annual ‘spiritual week’, we had to attend liturgy every day and would get extra points if we sang exceptionally loud.

My school had pork banned because it was considered unclean meat according to Leviticus 11 in the Bible – and in Islamic terms, it’s haram food. As a result, I always ended up craving pork after school, and I’d buy moo ping (pork skewers) pretty often. I definitely felt no guilt, as I didn’t feel like I was going against a personal belief. 

An existential question would often pop into my head: “I might eat pork, but I don’t offend anyone intentionally – am I still a good person in front of God’s eyes?”

Plus, I was a closeted LGBTQ+ student, who was apparently “condemned to go to hell” because of my identity – this strayed me very far away from religion and led to my decision to become an atheist.

Additionally, my Buddhist family members’ beliefs contradicted my lifestyle as I got older. As someone with tattoos, I started getting comments about how my body art communicated that I “destroyed temples in my past life”.

I’m An Atheist In A Religious Country, But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Belong To The CultureImage credit: Prowd Issarasena

The beliefs that were ingrained in me through school and family members’ comments led me to ask, “Do I need to be a good Buddhist to align with filial piety?”.

The importance of religion and faith in Thailand 

Besides Buddhism, there are other religions, such as Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism – this is why there are so many religious sites and allows individuals to cohabit peacefully.

I’m An Atheist In A Religious Country, But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Belong To The CultureImage credit: ASEAN Today

After becoming an atheist, I’ve gone to many temples, churches, and even spoken to religious leaders, and learnt the disciplinary teachings from them, and respect other beings. I did this as I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t condemned to go to hell.

Although I received comments that questioned my morals from time to time, like “because you’re Thai, having a religion proves that you’re much more successful in life and happier, and strips you from past sins”, it still has been a relatively smooth-sailing journey for me.

Adopting Buddhist teachings as an atheist

There are many Buddhist teachings about mindfulness, contentment and tolerance that I practice despite not having a belief in God. In fact, being an atheist has broadened my horizons, making me comfortable with adopting teachings from other religions for self development and spiritual health. 

Mental and physical health are always talked about, but we rarely speak of spiritual health. I view spiritual health as having a healthy connection between oneself and the world, with the latter being more than meets the eye. 

It’s often thought that atheists don’t believe in spirituality or karma, however, I still believe that what goes around comes around, based on our actions and consequences.

I’m An Atheist In A Religious Country, But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Belong To The CultureHiking is an activity I enjoy with people
Image credit: Prowd Issarasena

This has helped me become a better person and carry out good deeds, such as keeping the environment clean and encouraging others to enjoy nature. I also used to be a vegetarian for 2 years because of my love for animals, though I had to stop due to health reasons.

The concept of “karmic points” in Buddhism refers to one’s actions that could lead to a certain degree of consequences – this ties back to my belief of what goes around, comes around.

I’m An Atheist In A Religious Country, But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Belong To The CultureGood deeds to me include taking care of Earth, such as picking up rubbish in a forest.
Image credit: Prowd Issarasena

I realised this could be achieved by allowing others to embrace nature and this in return allowed me to achieve more mental peace and lasting connections.

Once a path has been chosen, there’ll always be something that you need to sacrifice. However, my decision to abide by this practice was to gain inner peace instead of being religious, as I chose to not believe in the religious aspects of karma, such as reincarnation

Coming to peace with atheism and religion

Throughout my journey in self-exploration, I’ve learnt these aspects throughout my journey. Everyone has a different journey and it’s important to choose your own footsteps. It’s crucial to understand how to navigate through certain experiences in a certain manner.

More on Thai superstitions and religion:

Cover images adapted from: Prowd Issarasena

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