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Why is it so difficult to “come out” as an atheist?

I’ve been wondering for the past few weeks, given a bunch of blogospherics that’s happened recently, why it is that it’s so hard for people who have come to grips with their lack of belief, to actually tell people about it?

Well, the answer is mostly the other people in this particular equation — the folks that will scrutinize, judge and ultimately decide whether you’re worth being in their life after you’ve come out to them and exposed yourself for the… *horror*… person that doesn’t believe in something… that you are. People like Steve Harvey, who can make a joke about atheists on the Tyra Banks show and get laughs instead of excoriation and public humiliation at the hands of an angry mob of folks who demand this filth be taken off the air. You know, like people do when anyone dares disbelieve their religion.

This colors people’s perceptions of atheists, not only as acceptable targets for jokes, but as being subhuman. It makes people think it is impossible for an atheist to enter into a relationship with someone and remain faithful to their significant others.

It’s even gotten to the point where the very label of atheist is to be avoided in hopes that people won’t prejudge you as evil — despite the fact that the other labels are mere handwaving distractions from the fact that the core concept of being an atheist is merely that you NOT believe in something, rather than that you specifically believe something in particular.

Most of the people who adopt “secular humanist” or “freethinker” or “bright” are playing a stupid rebranding game that will never gain traction. That’s probably a big reason why folks like Dawkins are doing what they can to retake the word “atheist” before it becomes just another slur on the ever-growing pile of verboten words in our language. I can understand this effort, not only as an attempt at retaking a label that otherwise was a mere description of what someone is NOT, rather than what someone IS, because labels are so intrinsic in our social navigation as humans that one desperately needs them in order to categorize someone as trustworthy or not.

For me, one big source of a lot of the inertia against coming out, came in the form of people’s expectations that one must believe SOMETHING on faith, no matter what it happens to be. I have a search set up on Gwibber (my Twitter client of choice) for the word “atheism”, and I honestly should have saved this one particular tweet I saw very recently — it said something along the lines of “i dont understand atheism — i mean, what do u believe in? who do u pray 2?”

Well, for starters, not believing in gods and devils and ghosts and psychic powers and healing crystals and homeopathy on merely the word of some person who has little or no real evidence for their claims is an extraordinarily liberating feeling. The fact that I don’t feel the need to thank God for my every blessing or pray to God to ask him to fix my every trivial problem frees up a lot of my precious time to actually enjoy my blessings and do something about my problems. It also means I can recognize a chain of cause and effect in advance, and either correctly attribute the good fortune that comes my way to the little nudges I can give them, or do something preemptive about the bad things before they escalate. And it means that I can wholeheartedly embrace the true study of reality as it is, the scientific endeavour to expand human knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the scientific method.

Not dogmatically, mind you — my belief is based on the evidence that it achieves the greatest results and explains the evidence presented in the most thorough and self-correcting method possible. It is not a worldview that filters itself through some very old ideas and demands that those core ideas may never be questioned. However, I do truly and earnestly believe that if there’s a better method of investigating this world than looking at the evidence, creating hypotheses, testing them, then developing theories wherein only the best survive, that we humans are simply incapable of this better method as of yet. And frankly, “read this old book” is most certainly not a better method. It is a decidedly inferior method, in point of fact.

Science and rationality doesn’t lend well to sound-bite proselytization, which adds to its appeal to an intellectual sort who prefers Gordian knots and logic puzzles to nursery rhymes and wives’ tales.

It’s heartening to know that there are a number of very good, very intelligent people who have been through quite a bit of religious nonsense, some with stories very similar to mine. People like CyberLizard, who was raised in the Lutheran tradition, and despite his apathy identified himself as a Christian up until he was through grade school. His ADHD in church earned him a number of punishments before ADHD was recognized; and he was completely lacking in any education about evolution whatsoever — you know, that pernicious school of scientific thought wherein the evidence of the life forms around us and beneath our feet is all actually summed up for the first time in human history, and weighed directly against the religions it so drastically undercuts.

Or DuWayne Brayton, who spent years as the battered housewife of his faith, playing every trick he could on his psyche to attempt to beat back the doubts that had begun to gnaw at the edges of his wholehearted belief in Christianity, the seeds for which mere knowledge of the real world had implanted. He fought with the experience for years because people kept telling him it was possible to reconcile his faith with his understanding of the real world, but as they kept coming into direct conflict, he found himself having to painfully excise those parts of his life where he’d internalized religion as a fundamental part of his being.

Some people, like Sam Ogden, have ascended to the next step in accepting his atheism — he no longer feels the need to clash directly with religious folks, and can live his life without needing to confront theists where they push their beliefs on others. This is a good thing for him, and a sad thing for the rest of us. This means there’s one less person willing to stand up to theistic bullies when they go out of their way to bully us. I’m sure if directly confronted, Sam would fight for all he’s worth, but there’s an element of proactivity — of, dare I say, “militantness”, that’s missing here. (To you quote-miners, I put that in scare quotes because being “militant” in this sense does not mean what you commonly intend it to mean. Being “militant” means, at best, being vocal and unabashed and otherwise out of the closet. It does not mean being violent or angry or rude. Just, not quiet.)

In some cases, the deconversion comes at a great cost of guilty feelings for past actions in the name of their religion, as was the case with this ex-Jehovah’s Witness (whom the Good Atheist finds quite attractive, understandably):

And sometimes it comes as a direct result of studying religion comparitively, or extensively, as was the case with this ex-Catholic newspaper reporter who covered religious topics exclusively for years before coming to a crisis of faith and coming out on the side of reason.

Most galling of all in the struggle against ridiculous beliefs, is the equally ridiculous justifications projected onto us by the religious that we’ve Left Behind (heh). A good example is this pastor’s sermon relating why North American culture is becoming increasingly irreligious, which actually gets it mostly right, surprisingly, but still believes that having a lack of faith is an active action, that some stinging event in our past has by necessity led us to believe there’s no sky daddy watching out for us by the mere fact this unwelcome event happened. While I understand this might be a small factor in some people’s “putting together Blue’s Clues”, it’s definitely not the only one.

And despite all the challenges presented, it is heartening to me that self-professed atheism is decidedly on the rise, thanks in no small part to the vocal atheists that spend their days talking about their lack of faith, and confronting those most steeped in their delusions, making it normal and acceptable and perfectly okay to call one’s self an atheist again without fear of being targeted for violence. That’s a big reason I came out. I knew if I had come to rationality and saw that people would dislike me for it, that other people out there would feel the same. The more I talk about it, the more I promote this blog, the more people I reach, the more normal my way of life is viewed and the more accepted we heathens will be. Much like the atheist bus ads, whose goal is not to convert but to normalize our rationality.

You see, my blog is a selfless endeavour, really. Well, at least partly. Despite being a good place to vent, and a good place to have discussions with the theists who come beating down my door every now and then, it actually does serve a more noble purpose overall. As do the blogs of the rest of you vocal atheists who have refused to sit down and shut up and drink your goddamned tea. It serves to pull the Overton Window back to the point where being without a religion is no longer seen as a fundamentally bad thing.

And that, in itself, is a good thing, is it not?

Comments

  1. says

    Jason, thanks for the link and glad to know that I got it mostly right re the reasons for the increase in atheism. Interestingly, I got more comments on this sermon from atheists than from Christians. Most, like you, were kind. My intent was to really try to understand the rationale that results in atheism. I probably should have included the fact that some people never had religious faith to lose — they began and remain persons for whom religious faith is not a consideration. Anyway, I tried not to demonize atheists, but rather to help my church members genuinely understand where atheists are coming from. Thanks for taking time to read my attempt and for the link. -Chuck

  2. says

    Thanks, Jason. It isn’t easy, being green an atheist. We’re the scum of the earth, dontchaknow.

    One little clarification: it wasn’t that I had never been taught evolution at all (although I couldn’t pin down a specific year or class where it was first taught), I just meant that I never heard about it through the church. It was never an issue there one way or the other. I do have a vague recollection of my freshmen year biology teacher warning us that we were going to discuss evolution and that it might be controversial, but I don’t recall anyone ever contradicting her or trying to bring up questions about creationism. Perhaps that’s because I was in the “Gifted” Biology class.

    Anyway, nice consolidation of the issue. And very good point about not dogmatically believing in science. I get tired of hearing the crap about how we atheists have just replaced “god” with “science”.

  3. says

    Another excellent post, Jason. :) I think the reason that I’ve become more vocal (so to speak) about my lack of belief in any god or gods is that I seem to care less and less what other people think about me. I do care about how they treat me. If thinks I’m a heathen who will burn in hell, I couldn’t really care less. If that same person starts treating me as if I’m a lesser human being because of what they think about me, however, they’re going to get an ear full of my own “words of wisdom”.

    My wife and I are the only two atheists at our workplace (as far as we know). We’re “out” to most of the people we work with, and they really don’t seem to have a problem with it. I think that’s because they’ve worked with us for years, and they knew what kind of people we were long before they knew anything about our atheism.

  4. says

    Thanks folks, I appreciate the support.

    Apologies CyberLizard, I probably should have reread your post before I wrote that blurb about you. I was on a bit of a roll. Interesting that he prefaced the talk with “this is going to be controversial”. I wonder if the creationist lecture linked in my latest linking post had any such disclaimer as the one you mentioned?

    Dan makes an excellent point. Who cares what others think about things? I sure don’t. I couldn’t be bothered with trying to convert people from their particular faiths, I only care about how we are treated. And “we” extends to our scientifically derived knowledge, since science can’t defend itself against sound-bite proselytization.

  5. says

    And “we” extends to our scientifically derived knowledge, since science can’t defend itself against sound-bite proselytization.

    That’s another great point. The deeply religious almost always contend that we atheists are “proselytizing”. What we’re doing is protecting knowledge that was arrived at via scientific methods. What we’re doing is preventing religious dogma from dragging us back into the 12th century.

    I think a lot of the theists are treating science the way Stalin treated many of his detractors. He had their images erased from photographs, information about them removed from books, etc. He wanted them “erased” from history.

    Many theists want the same done with evolutionary science. I don’t think they realize the damage caused to humanity when you actually erase knowledge. Once it’s gone and forgotten, it will only come back through research similar to that which fostered it in the first place.

    What would happen if the knowledge of viral mutation were wiped out along with the knowledge of evolution? Imagine the next viral/bacterial plague. Now imagine it without any vaccines or treatments. Now imagine 80% of the world’s population wiped out. Now pray to your “kind and loving god™” that you won’t be among them. Come to think of it, the dead might even be the luckier ones.

    That’s the kind of crap that happens without science, people. That’s why those of us who aren’t theists fight tooth and nail to keep religious bullshit out of the science classroom.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Why is it so difficult to “come out” as an atheist? Well, for starters, not believing in gods and devils and ghosts and psychic powers and healing crystals and homeopathy on merely the word of some person who has little or no real evidence for their claims is an extraordinarily liberating feeling. The fact that I don’t feel the need to thank God for my every blessing or pray to God to ask him to fix my every trivial problem frees up a lot of my precious time to actually enjoy my blessings and do something about my problems. It also means I can recognize a chain of cause and effect in advance, and either correctly attribute the good fortune that comes my way to the little nudges I can give them, or do something preemptive about the bad things before they escalate. And it means that I can wholeheartedly embrace the true study of reality as it is, the scientific endeavour to expand human knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the scientific method. [...]

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