The Telegraph has an article about a student atheist group at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, which includes my friend Dan Linford. Part of the article focuses on the difficulty many of them face in hiding their atheism from their families and potential employers.
At first glance, the group of scruffy-looking students could be attending a meeting of any old debating club, but as they begin to speak it soon becomes clear that they all share the same secret.
A shy young woman is among the first. She admits she is still a long way from telling her parents the truth about herself. “My closest friends know,” she says, “but where I come from, I only know one other person like me, who was a teacher. I will tell my parents in the end, I can’t now; at least, not until I am financially independent.”
Going around the circle, each member shares their story and says whether or not they are “out” of the closet…
And yet despite the softening approach of the younger generation towards religion, in this fiercely Bible-minded corner of Virginia, many atheists and agnostics still feel they must live in the shadows.
In two days of interviews at least half of the avowed non-believers declined to be named in the Telegraph, citing fears they would be ostracised by friends, family, churches and even their employers…
Caroline – not her real name – is a graduate research chemist who is about to hit the job market and is afraid that her atheism will be held against her.
“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.
“If the person hiring is a person of faith – which is more likely than not around here – that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”
She is not alone in her fears. Another student who is applying for graduate school told how his father recommended he delete any references to atheism from his Facebook page in case it spoiled his chances. He rejected the advice on principle, but remains unsure what the consequences will be.
For others members, the biggest fear is being shunned at home. “I’ve lost a lot friends,” said John, a graduate student in his thirties who grew up being home-schooled by his Southern Baptist parents but gave up his faith after an intellectual rebellion against the church’s Creationist teaching…
Brian Farrell, a 22-year-old computer science graduate who grew up a Christian but is now an “out” atheist, said that for many of his age group it was easier simply to “go along with religion” than to risk being left out in the cold.
“The stakes are high,” he said. “Do I want to be supported by my friends and family, or am I going to risk being kicked out of clubs and organisations? It’s tempting just to avoid the whole issue. I would put 20 or 30 per cent of my friends growing up in that category.”
I’ve been very lucky in this regard. I’m obviously very public in my atheism and have never lost any friends or jobs over it.