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Jun 30 2009

Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight’s Worst Person in the World

Keith olbermannIf you’re an atheist, and you’re promoting atheists coming out and knowing that they’re not alone — but you, yourself, are not entirely out of the closet about your atheism — does that make you a bad person?

Keith Olbermann seems to think so. In his fabled “Worst Person in the World” segment tonight, he had this to say:

Tonight’s worst persons in the world. The bronze: To the person who donated the scratch for ten thousand dollars worth of ads on the sides of buses in New York City, promoting atheism. They read, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” The hope, from president Ken Bronstein of the group NYC Atheists, is to get people to stop hiding their non- belief — to stop hiding it. No complaint about the message — however, while Bronstein says, “We want to get atheists to come join us, to get out of the closet,” unfortunately the donor who made the ads possible is keeping his identity anonymous. (Contemptuous eye-roll.)

Okay. Here is my question for Mr. Olbermann.

If you were doing a segment about an ad campaign designed to let gay people know that they weren’t alone and to encourage them to come out of the closet — and one of the major donors to the campaign wanted to remain anonymous — would you decry them as one of the worst persons in the world?

Dont ask dont tellOr would you understand that coming out as gay can — yes, still, even this day and age — be a hazardous enterprise? Would you understand that coming out can mean alienating family and friends, losing your job or your kids, getting beaten up or even killed? Would you understand that people have to come out on their own timetable, and that a person who wants to take action to support gay rights and gay visibility still might not be completely out of the closet? Would you understand that even gay people who are out to their families and friends and colleagues still might not want their name, and their gayness, splashed all over the national news?

And if so, then why don’t you understand it about atheists?

There are some realities about living as an atheist that you may not know about, Mr. Olbermann. Coming out as an atheist can have serious real-world consequences. Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists. People get harassed and vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists. Teachers get suspended for being atheists. Teenagers get harassed and suspended from school for being atheists. Politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that’s just in the US. I’m not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.)

Coming out dayI wish atheists would come out of the closet, too. It is the single most powerful act we can do to gain acceptance and understanding. And there’s definitely a Catch-22: the world isn’t safe for atheists since so few atheists are out… but as long as atheists don’t come out, it will continue to be unsafe. Some of us need to take the risk, so it’ll be easier and less risky for others.

But I also understand that that is not my decision to make for others. I understand that, while I can encourage atheists to come out, I can’t judge them if they decide they can’t do it. I understand that coming out is not as easy for some people as it is for others. It was pretty easy for me: my family are atheists; my wife is an atheist; I live in San Francisco, the world capital of alternative culture and “who gives a damn what other people believe”-ism; I work for a hippie punk-rock anarchist business; I don’t have kids. (And even I lost friends when I came out as an atheist.) I understand that not everyone is as lucky as me: I understand that there is a substantial amount of anti- atheist bigotry in this country and in the world, and that some people have workplaces, neighbors, schools, custody situations, etc., that make coming out as atheist untenable.

Is there an irony in the fact that the major donor behind an atheist visibility ad campaign is choosing to remain anonymous? You bet there is. But that irony should not be making you think, “What a hypocrite that person is. They’re one of the worst persons in the world.” It should be making you think, “What a messed up world it is we live in — that even the person promoting atheist visibility doesn’t feel safe being completely open about being an atheist.”

28 comments

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  1. 1
    ssjessiechan

    I totally agree with you there. I can imagine so many situations that are worse than mine to come out in. I’m remembering an article written by a former muslim in which she said that, even in America, coming out as an Atheist could mean your relatives kidnapping you and sending you back to their old country, and even possibly murder. It makes me seethe to think he can judge someone this way. And it makes me wonder if he really supports the message of the ad (not that I know anything about Olberman, is he an Atheist?)
    I think a more immediate point is, though, that just because a donor is anonymous, does not mean that he’s not out in his personal life. It just means he isn’t announcing who he is to a nation that contains, in small but not insignificant proportions, people who think death threats are an appropriate response to cracker theft. People are emotional enough over atheism, and have been quite emotional about the ad campaign. Remaining anonymous over the funding of the ad is perfectly reasonable, perfectly respectable, and has no bearing on how “out” he is in his own community. All it means is, he doesn’t think it’s important at this time in his life to be burnt in effigy and have his house vandalized.
    Yes, it is terribly sad. Sad that it’s not a matter of IF he might offend some people into acting rashly, but how many, when, and how dangerously.

  2. 2
    Sean the Blogonaut

    Maybe just maybe the person who donated, was being humble, maybe they didn’t want the accolades.

  3. 3
    Sparky

    The problem here is that Mr. Olbermann, while someone I respect on many levels, has a whoooole lot of privilege.
    He’s a wealthy, heterosexual, dominant-religion, white man.
    I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – but I am saying that that means that while he can learn about what it means to be part of a disadvantaged group, he doesn’t truly understand.
    He cannot understand how essential the closet is for many, how, when any group asks people to de-closet, it’s understood that this isn’t a demand but a fervent wish. He doesn’t understand the shit that can rain down when people are outed.
    I’m gay. I am (80%) out of the closet. I wish that everyone was out of the closet because it woudl be so powerful for us. BUT I’m not fool enough to think that’s possible yet for everyone and I know how damn HARD it can be to be out.
    He doesn’t understand it. And he doesn’t understand that, yes, atheists too can loose families, jobs and generally see their whole life be screwed over sideways if they do not hide their atheism.
    It’s sad,because I think on most issues Olbermann would be an ally – but here his ignorance, inexperience and privilege is showing

  4. 4
    Richard

    I think you really nailed it with this one.

  5. 5
    Steve Caldwell

    According to the biography information about Olbermann on Wikipedia, he was raised by Unitarian parents. That means that he really isn’t “dominant-religion” privileged. However, he is religiously privileged in that it’s highly unlikely that his family will kidnap him or disown him if he were an atheist.
    And he is privileged in other ways (race, gender, age, economic class, etc) that he’s probably not realizing.
    I’m guessing that his Unitarian background may be part of the reason for closeted atheist is the worst person of the world comments.
    Being raised around Unitarians in the 1960s and 1970s, I’m sure he met plenty of humanist and atheist Unitarians who were not closeted during his childhood and adolescence.
    Given his upbringing, he probably doesn’t realize that being an out athest can be dangerous for some.
    Another possibility for some who were raised in Unitarian households during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s is resentment towards humanism and atheism.
    I’ve heard some baby boomer and Gen X people who were raised in Unitarian households who resented their non-theist church upbringing. A fifth-generation Unitarian friend of mine whose childhood years happened during the 1970s remarked about the “humanist hijacking” of the Unitarian churches during her childhood.
    I did ask my friend if no guns, bombs, box cutters, death threats, etc were made, perhaps it’s just a bit excessive to call the 1950s-1970s humanist demographic shift in Unitarianism a “hijacking.”

  6. 6
    vjack

    Outstanding post! Olbermann clearly doesn’t get it.

  7. 7
    llewelly

    Sparky | June 30, 2009 at 04:41 AM:

    I’m gay. I am (80%) out of the closet.

    Is that 80% from the ankles up or the neck down?

  8. 8
    llewelly

    Steve Caldwell | June 30, 2009 at 05:54 AM:

    I did ask my friend if no guns, bombs, box cutters, death threats, etc were made, perhaps it’s just a bit excessive to call the 1950s-1970s humanist demographic shift in Unitarianism a “hijacking.”

    You can’t ask questions like that. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself wondering if violating copyright is really equivalent to rape and pillage on the high seas, and asking if your pot-smoking neighbor is so evil a war ought to be declared against him. Pretty soon you’ll start throwing out the myriad assumptions of our public discourse, become a social heretic, and climb aboard the hundred horsepower handcart to hell.

  9. 9
    Skeptico

    Since Olbermann put Brian Deer on his worst persons list in February I’ve been somewhat more cynical about Olbermann and his antics. Sadly, although I agree with him a lot of the time, I’ve come to think that he is a bit of a nut who can’t be trusted unless other sources can back up what he says. I saw last night’s show and it just confirmed that opinion.

  10. 10
    JohnFrost

    Thank you, Greta.

  11. 11
    sav

    Great post, but there may also be another reason for this person remaining anonymous–maybe this person doesn’t want other organizations asking them for money to promote their causes.
    I’m not defending people with money or suggesting that their lives are hard because everyone wants a piece of their action. I’m just saying that it is quite common for donors of large sums of money to remain anonymous for the simple reason that they want to control who and what they give their money to.

  12. 12
    David Moisan

    I’m an atheist and a person with a disability who sits on his town’s board for people with disabilities.
    We advocate for the interests of everyone in our town with a disability. Believe it or not, people with disabilities can be closeted. They may have an invisible disability, a brain injury or something else that isn’t considered a “good” disability”
    Let’s say you’re a type 1 diabetic? You want to out yourself? Knowing the insurance company might deny you coverage?
    Or that your neighbors might not talk to you; diabetes is, after all, “a lifestyle disease”; if you’d only stop eating ice cream and lose weight, you wouldn’t get sick! (A very dangerous and untrue belief.)
    I know people with disabilities that only talk to me in confidence. They would never “come out” in one of our public meetings.
    Yes, one would say, that’s not as bad as being beaten or threatened as a gay or an atheist might be, but to those with a disability, the insults and stereotypes can hurt terribly, and it’s much easier to stay in hiding.
    Not the way I or my commission wants it, but we have to be ever, ever mindful of our consituents’ dignity and most important, privacy.
    I can come out as an atheist because my community is tolerant (mostly), and be out as a disabled person, but it took me many years to get to that point, with a group of friends and colleagues who respect me.
    Please, Mr. Olberman, have a care for those who can’t be out. Perhaps if that donor outs himself, he may not make any more donations.
    Or he’ll be in the police report.

  13. 13
    Julie

    Privilege strikes again. Though to be fair to Mr. Olbermann, I am lucky in my privilege as well so when I first heard about how hard it can be being and atheist,I was really surprised.
    I read your posts about all the things that happen to atheist it boggles my mind. So far as I can tell it’s never had a negative effect on me at all. Lucky me I know.

  14. 14
    Seth Manapio

    Maybe the donor isn’t an atheist, or is an out atheist already. Maybe the donor is Chris Hitchens, and he just doesn’t think that he needs to be the story all the time.

  15. 15
    Yoo

    I can see why the donor would wish to remain anonymous: it’s one thing to come out to people around you, it can be an entirely different thing to gain national attention …

  16. 16
    Creepy

    Very well said. Keith forgets that atheists are the last minority in this country that are legally allowed to be persecuted.

  17. 17
    efrique

    Good one.
    I am glad for the anonymous donor. It increases visibility for atheists, ultimately making it that tiny bit safer for me to be more out. I don’t care whether or not the donor is out themselves. [In any case, I don't see that being anonymous for the donation implies the donor is "not out" in their life, just that they wish the donation to be anonymous.]
    I doubt my (fairly religious but very reasonable) employer would make my atheism an issue if I were fully out – but it could easily be a problem for him with some of his clients.
    That (protecting my employer) was one reason I began being a little bit more anonymous online.
    And the small extent to which we (my partner and I) are out *has* definitely caused problems for our children. I’m not in a hurry to make their lives harder.
    So anything that makes it even a tinier bit safer to be more open about my atheism is a big help as far as I’m concerned.
    Even in the locations where the bus ads are disallowed for whatever reason, if the /attempt/ to get the ads up makes the news, it helps.
    Keith, you’re wrong on this one.

  18. 18
    Clare

    There is no evidence that this donor chose to remain anonymous because they didn’t want people to know they were atheist. They may well be openly atheist in their own lives. Isn’t it quite common for people to make large donations anonymously? They may prefer not to show off or to be hounded by other needy causes. Then, of course, there are the points you outlined above. Thanks for pointing this one out.

  19. 19
    Neil Schipper

    From the nyc-atheists site:

    The advertisements cost more than $10,000 and were paid for by an anonymous donor.

    Isn’t part of the story that in diverse “hip” New York City, the raising of a mere $10,000 was not a result of community-wide donations?
    NYC has what, about 20M people? It is inconceivable that of those, there are less than 500k atheists. Raising $10k would require that 1% of them had the interest and the financial means to make a $2 donation.
    Atheists seem to be in denial about their noise to commitment ratio.

  20. 20
    rocketpants

    Thank you for writing this. I recently moved back to Alabama from Seattle and was confronted almost immediately with the imperative that one not only believe in a god, but that it be a Christian god, and that one’s daily casual conversations should include references to faith. I have gone back in the closet – my business here depends on the goodwill of my neighbors, who have said to me again and again that they would not do business with a non-Christian. I keep mum – I do not openly lie – but I don’t correct them when they assume I agree.
    I realized recently that a lot of the anti-atheist rhetoric here (and presumably throughout the country) can be tied directly back to anti-communist rhetoric. In the 20th century, when our national identity and mythology depended on our distinguishing ourselves in compelling ways from our enemy on the other side of the world, we clung to the idea that Soviet communism mandated atheism. It was probably the most easily understood difference – that and general basic totalitarianism. When Joe or Jane on the street couldn’t get arms around the idea of collective ownership of capital, atheism was an easy thing to focus on. THEY are godless. WE are different. WE believe in GOD.
    For nearly a century we told ourselves that we are not evil because we are not godless. I am afraid it will take more than the fall of the Soviet Union – and possibly more than another century of history – for us to let go of that national identity myth. Now, because our current “enemy” is identified with another religion, we are not likely to let go of our attachment to Christianity and Judaism… in spite of the fact that much of what we dislike about our “enemy” is their seemingly irrational attachment to fundamental religious principles. Getting over God may take more than a century.
    If I had the $$ to run this campaign in a major city, I would. If these ads start to chip away at the stranglehold that god-ism has on our national identity, it’s a good thing. No, I might not go public just yet. I might just wait until I had some friends to go public with me.
    I honor you for being out. By writing this, I’m coming out just a little bit, too, I guess… though I doubt many of my friends and coworkers in south Alabama read your blog.
    Jane

  21. 21
    WScott

    Speaking of prejudice against atheists…
    http://skepticblog.org/2009/07/02/boy-scouts-youve-been-cast-out/
    By the way, Greta: I’ve been meaning to thank you. I just finished reading “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” and loved it. I think this was the first place I saw it recommended, so thanks.

  22. 22
    'Tis Himself

    I’m a senior executive for a largish company. I attend a weekly meeting held by the company’s president which he always opens with a short, nondenominational prayer. This president has hired and promoted Blacks, Asians, and women into high level jobs. He has privately admitted that he has only two prejudices, gays and atheists. He said that the law requires him to treat homosexuals without discrimination and he does so. He also said the law does not cover atheists and he feels he has free rein to smack them down. I would be a fool to come out of the atheist closet as long as this guy is running the company.

  23. 23
    Black Woman Thinks

    An interesting post.
    I’m ‘out’ as atheist and have been for as long as I can remember. I never hide my non-belief in all forms of the supernatural and I feel especially strongly about it considering the deep pyschological bullshit that the black community (in the main) believe and cling onto.
    The more ‘out’ atheists the better, although I am not an African-American, nor live in some parts of the bible belt or somesuch place where your value and worth within the community is judged by your attendance and contribution to a church.
    As a heterosexual atheist black woman (!) it is truly saddening that people have the need to hide their sexuality and their non-belief – which is so ironic as the root problem of both issues starts with texts based on hate, social control and ignorance.
    If you choose not to come out about your atheism then I totally understand. I am not in your shoes.
    Zee

  24. 24
    Adam

    Thanks for writing this. I’m from Alabama and there’s no way for me to completely come out and not face severe consequences at work and at home. I’ve donated money to FFRF and ACLU, but I just can’t be very open about my beliefs.

  25. 25
    Jack

    Also, Alabama here…I am a civil servant and have yet to attend a single meeting that didn’t begin with prayer. Usually committees are headed by ministers or people who make a show of their faith.
    I’ve even witnessed children being forced to pray in public school settings.
    Only once did I comment on the status of religion in secular government and a concerned friend quickly changed the subject of conversation; later telling me that being known as atheist would be an automatic loss of my job.

  26. 26
    windy

    “Atheists seem to be in denial about their noise to commitment ratio.”
    Er, isn’t it more plausibe that they didn’t have to solicit donations from a large number of people, because someone had already ponied up the 10K? *olbermannian eye-roll*

  27. 27
    BlueMonday

    I’m also in Alabama, and I have to say that I’m relieved other Alabamians on here, even if I have no idea who you guys are.
    I actually recently moved back to care for my father–a devout evangelical fundamentalist minister–who is dying of cancer. He is also one of the most important people in the world to me. I was out as an atheist in Oklahoma, which is no small feat, I assure you, but it’s always been a tense issue (at best) with my family. Now, I am certain my father, looking for the “all things work together for the good” in his situation, is counting on my return to the faith for validation of his otherwise senseless and painful illness.
    I’d originally hoped to play along, but I’m too outspoken for it. I can’t directly come out as an atheist because it would crush a dying man who I love dearly. But I also can’t make it through Glenn Beck with my mouth shut.
    Mr. Olbermann, we’re not all cowards. Some of us are forced into silence (or at least quietness) out of compassion.
    Although, to be fair, I’ve only been here a week, and, though I’ll try, I don’t know that I’ll last here in the closet.

  28. 28
    UPG

    Keeping the message anonymous makes it seem as though it comes from other “out” atheists. Putting one persons name to the message makes it seem like it’s a message from just that one person. It’s a much stronger message when it come from the larger group.

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