If 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?
Or 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.)
I 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.”