January 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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Excerpt: Quite a few atheists in America are only willing to 'come out' and admit their atheism when online - and anonymously. They aren't able to publicly acknowledge their atheism to friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors because they fear the repercussion...
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I think another aspect of people's aversion to atheism is that many equate it with nihilism. They believe that if a person has no religion then they have no rules governing their behavior and are consequently immoral and unethical. I find this both distressing and ironic since it seems that people who are supposedly religious appear to break from their beliefs frequently. How many times have religious leaders expressed their disgust with other groups when it is written that they are supposed to love thy neighbor.

Posted by Joe on January 18, 2006 09:17 AM

I think Joe is right on. Many people think of atheists as lacking any moral compass. I remember before I slowly became atheist that I feared not having a God because for some reason I would fall into some pit of immorality and become an "evil" person. But it turns out that is very far from the truth. It's almost a paradox all on its own. Many of the atheists I know are some of the most honest, caring, and politically active people I know.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on January 18, 2006 10:56 AM

I think belonging to some religious group just makes it easier to establish a baseline of beliefs for discussion between individuals. Belonging though does not translate to living by some higher standard, as some would like to believe. It is still up to each individual to establish their own moral beliefs to live by, whether they follow a specific religion, a mix of religions, or no organized religion.I personally see things in various religions that I believe in, and that might even change day by day as I explore and learn. It is funny though when you talk to people about religious beliefs, how some people equate participating in an organized religion as equal to living a moral life. People do not always distinguish the difference between believing and actual actions.While I do not consider myself an atheist (since I am still learning about and developing my beliefs), I wonder of it is easier for atheists to understand the difference between believing something and actually living one's life in a specific way.

Posted by Brian Gray on January 18, 2006 11:44 AM

I am an atheist and I have an ambivalence about revealing that. This weekend I was at a bed and breakfast place run by a church minister (I did not know that when I booked the place). He prayed before serving us our breakfast. The other guests talked about how they were fortunate to have found Christ again after being wayward in their youth. Now, this is not a place where I want to share my views on faith. I do not want to disturb the status quo. They were all diehard theists and I am an atheist. I do not see either party benefiting from my saying what I stood for.

I knew that the minister was curious about my faith though. When he learnt that I was from India. He spoke about Christian missionaries in India and then asked what my background was (implying what my faith was). Now I was directly confronted. But still I couldnt use the word atheist. I said that I did not practice any. He misinterpreted this response to mean that I was open for conversion to Christianity and presented me with a book that compares different religious faiths and concludes that Jesus is the only true god. In the book the author bemoans that "in the name of 'tolerance', our postmodern culture embracese everything from Eastern mysticism to New Age spiritualitiy ......All religions, plainly and simply, cannot be true." The author's words prove your point "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."
Do you think I should have told him that I was an atheist and entered into a debate?

Posted by Arvin (Aravindhan Natarajan) on January 18, 2006 11:59 AM

Arvin, your comments along with Mano's entry got me to thinking about the Spiral of Silence theory of communication. The premise is that one is "less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority." It is a common social phenomenon and helps explain why more atheists don't "come out of the closet".

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on January 18, 2006 12:53 PM

Thanks Aaron, now I feel guilty for contributing to the problem by not being more open about my beliefs. ;-p

Seriously, though, that's an excellent point. I do feel like that's exactly why more atheists should be open about their beliefs, but so far that still seems easier said than done. Social repercussions I can deal with, but the familial issues it would raise would just be a huge headache for years.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on January 18, 2006 01:44 PM

My family and friends know about my atheism, but I've found myself in situations similar to what Arvin describes and acted in a similar fashion.

I'm all for enlightenment and if a friend is curious about how I came to my beliefs, I'll gladly explain. All too often it's Christians vs. Me and I don't see the point in bringing it up. I never lie if confronted, but I won't go out of my way to make enemies either.

At my last job (the Boy Scouts of America), I would have been fired if anyone found out about my beliefs. I knew that going into the job, but I thought the job was what I wanted (I was wrong).

Posted by Barry on January 18, 2006 02:08 PM

In our discussion, I suggested that for people for whom there might be repercussions if they reveal thier atheism, they should not feel obliged to make a stand. One of the people in the discussion was a high school teacher who said that parents might be upset and cause problems if they felt their children was being taught by an atheist. So he kept quiet about it and I can understand it.

But for people for whom there is no real price to be paid for revealing one's atheistic views (like me), then we should do so. This is so that theists realize that atheists are all around them, living perfectly ordinary lives. This (I hope) makes the climate more welcome for other atheists and increases the chances for tolerance for them in the future.

The social situation that Arvin describes is an interesting one. At one time, I would have said nothing, just to avoid being dragged into a debate or for fear of causing offence. Now I would act differently. If asked, I would reveal my views because my views are nothing to be ashamed of. But it is a tough call and each individual has to decide how much aggravation they want to deal with.

The whole situation is remarkably similar to the situation with gays, although as I said earlier, the social costs that gays pay is much higher.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 18, 2006 02:09 PM

I find I speak up or keep quiet depending on the situation. If someone is damning me, or being disrespectful, I'll go into debate mode. If someone mentions god casually in passing, and my interjection would distract from the subject at hand, I'll let it go. I guess I try to keep the level of respect at a mutual level.

But I also find that when the subject is broached that morality comes to the forefront. The more I've discussed this, with athiests and believers alike, the more I see a split in our definitions of morality. I see things like "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal" as being universals which can be agreed upon (with situational exceptions) by people with faith and those without.

These are pragmatic rules which help society function and safeguard our individual rights. But in addition to these types of rules, religions will include other rules predicated by god(s) such as not believing in other gods, not making idols, not practicing homosexuality, and converting the heathen.

For these rules, the "goodness" doesn't lie in doing right by society, but in showing obeisance to god. I'm sure I could write tomes on why such rules would not be included in my definition of morality, and yet as an atheist, my dismissal of such, my rejection of god's rules, defines me as amoral according to those who do apply the very rules I'm ignoring.

Just as we find in the ID vs. evolution debate, we find that our different definitions make it difficult to find common ground for logical debate. Nonetheless, I agree that we should keep spreading our ideas, not to convert the believers, but to help them understand our worldview.

Posted by cool on January 18, 2006 02:34 PM

It seems that many of the questions suggested here are being addressed more in the open than previously.My wife previously taught in a Catholic school. She taught a set of brothers that came from an openly acknowledged atheist family. The older student had already questioned his parent's beliefs for himself and came to similar conclusions, while the younger brother was still exploring how he felt. It was nice to hear the parents tell their kids to live their lives fairly and morally, but you need to decide were you stand spirtually for yourself. They sent their kids to the Catholic school to gain a good education, understand "morality", and be exposed to others beliefs, so that thay can decide their own path. I always wondered if these parents were maybe more open to their kids learning about and picking their individual paths, than parents of families raised in a specific organized religion, especially generation after generation.

Posted by Brian Gray on January 18, 2006 03:30 PM