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Dec 28 2007

Should atheists “come out”? -2

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

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.

In the comments to 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: Follow up by Austin Cline

Austin Cline picked up on the above original post that appeared on January 18, 2006 and added an interesting coda at his website About atheism. He said:

This is very similar to something George Smith wrote:

In Christianity doubt stands opposed not to certainty per se, but to faith. To have faith, in a religious context, is to have absolute confidence in God and to trust his revelations unconditionally. Thus, for the Christian to be uncertain of a divine revelation is bad enough, but to doubt that revelation is incomparably worse, because the latter implies a readiness to criticize that the former does not. … In short, for the Christian to doubt the truth of a purported revelation is potentially to challenge the authority of the infallible God in whom she believes. It is therefore religious doubt, not atheistic disbelief, that constitutes the greatest threat to orthodox beliefs, because doubt threatens to undermine a belief system from within.

I wonder if this is also one reason why so many Christians insist that atheism is a faith? If, as Singham writes, faith is less threatening than doubt, then “atheism as a faith” can be dismissed more readily than “atheism as a challenge, a question, and a doubt.” I don’t think it likely that many, if any, Christians actually think about the issue in these terms, but this doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t being made unconsciously.

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