Jan 18 2006

Should atheists come out of the closet?

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should “come out.” I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should ‘come out of the closet.’ The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one’s work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a ‘man of the Book,’ made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

During the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them “You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts.”

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT 1: Praying for other people’s souls

After my op-ed on intelligent design was published in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied “I can only pray for your soul.”

When people say they are praying for someone else’s soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is “I can’t wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you.” But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say “I will pray for your soul” instead.

Here’s my advice to such religious people. If someone annoys you, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don’t think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a “holier than thou” attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT 2: Bush on Global Warming

President Bush, looking surprisingly like actor Will Ferrell, shares his views on global warming. (Thanks to reader Anne for the link.)

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