Monday, November 05, 2007

Come out... or COME OUT!

Everyone has a right to handle their belief or disbelief any way they choose. Most of us secularists would be quite satisfied with The Religiosas if they would simply believe whatever they believe, but keep it tucked away in their back pocket to use exclusively for personal guidance in day to day living. That being the case, and us generally being people who are free-thinkers living by the Golden Rule, it may seem fair that we not be hypocrites and simply do exactly that with our own atheism.

In fact, during the recent discussion of this post by John at Spanish Inquisitor, one of our fellow bloggers Philly Chief had this to say to that very point:

Part of it is I don’t see why it always has to be brought up. I won’t hesitate to admit it if asked, but I don’t go out of my way to broadcast it to anyone. Outside of my mother, my family has no idea where I stand on religion, politics, or many other things. Plus, I’d be a hypocrite if I was constantly yelling “I’m an Atheist!” since I always complain about people spouting their religious beliefs anywhere and everywhere.”

Now I should back up just a bit. The comment I made that set this whole thing in motion was that I think as atheists, we will have a hard time making headway towards creating a secular society if those of us on the leading edge of it are unwilling to tell others what we think. I mentioned that blogging is terrific but that you have a much greater impact in your daily life with personal interactions.

So now let me say immediately that I completely agree with Philly Chief’s comment. I’m not for aggressively spouting off our atheist viewpoint in every situation that confronts us. That is definitely not what I meant. Certainly I have been one of those who ask for a civil discourse with most theists; as mentioned in many posts and comments.

Nor do I want to make my atheists friends feel uncomfortable about how they have chosen to deal with their rational world view. I understand.

I’m proposing that most people who keep their atheism from friends, family, in-laws, co-workers, neighbors, do so from fear. I think it is fear of consequences like loss of friendship, angry confrontations, loss of prestige, loss of employment, and physical abuse. None of these concerns are to be taken lightly, and that’s why I say, simply, I understand. I’ll just share my own life experience in the hopes that it can be helpful to someone, somewhere who has struggled with what I’m talking about now.

No one in my personal life has any doubt about me being an atheist. I don’t shout it from the roof-tops. I don’t turn every religious discussion into an angry “but that’s just bullshit” discussion. I don’t turn my back when my wife’s church calls me up and says, hey, we need a basketball coach; can you help?

To the contrary, I mostly keep what I think to myself. But during the course of any extensive human interaction, I find it impossible for me not to say what I think – in a perfectly appropriate way. And so, over time, everyone knows where I stand. Additionally, I say little things right away in new relationships to lay a clear but non-aggressive framework for the future. For instance, if someone who doesn’t yet know me well says, “Billy is sick and we’d appreciate your prayers”, I always reply along these lines – “I don’t pray, but my thoughts are definitely with Billy. Actually, if there is anything I can do to help you folks while he’s down, please let me know”.

I’ve had Christian friends say to me, “Hey John, you’re more of a Christian than most of my fellow Christians”. I think that’s a wonderful compliment – because I know what they are saying. They have an expectation of how a follower of Christ’s teachings should interact with the world, very few do it and they see me doing more decent things than a lot of those people.

No one who knows me is fearful of talking to this atheist. They know I wish only the best for them and their family. They know I will strongly, but respectfully, defend my position. If they just have questions about atheism, I’ll patiently answer. If they want to hone their “skills” as a religious apologist and hanker for a friendly debate, I’ll give it to them. But I never use it as a wedge between them and me.

I have no idea if I’ve lost any relationships or jobs because of my atheism. It was certainly never obviously the case and I prefer not include in my mental life-script a non-existent harm inflicted on me. We all have a certain amount of friendships that disappear over the years. For sure I’ve never lost a true friend because he or she believed in god and I didn’t.

I have never been physically attacked. I’m not going to say that this could never happen to an atheist. There are nut-jobs all over the place who are perfectly capable of doing harm to another human being for any real or imaginary reason. I can either hide my atheism from them in hopes of not giving them yet another reason to be violent, or I can live an open life, knowing that there are a thousand other things that I could suffer violence from. I choose the latter. I don't think of myself as brave. It's just a matter of probabilities and the odds are way in my favor. When was the last time you read a news story about a group of believers attacking an atheist?

I know there are families that are not like mine and will turn their backs on a member who breaks with the family faith. I think this is probably the one I understand and sympathize with the most. I’m not sure how to give anyone encouragement in this situation and few of us want to be estranged from our own family. I will say that in most cases reconciliation is possible and will happen over time if you are willing to put in the work. It’s very difficult for a person to continually turn away from a loved one who does nothing to deserve it. And, just because we think we will be ostracized doesn't mean we will. Fear directs the mind towards the worst possible consequences.

My family (including in-laws) is generally a very credulous group – primarily leaning towards fundamental Christianity. I have a sister-in-law who is a doctor and doesn’t accept the fact of evolution! We kick religion around from time to time, with me always getting in the best kicks. They love me. They can’t get enough of old John. Sometimes I wish they could. I’m pretty sure that if my in-laws ever burn anyone at the stake, it would be my wife for divorcing me. Unlike Charles Darwin, I have never had a desire to protect my spouse from my apostasy. This has been the hardest part of my atheism – my wife and her desire to raise our two kids in faith. Our compromise has been for me to allow it, but also never missing an opportunity to tell them about the real world. I’ve actually been more accepting of this compromise than she has – but we would all figure that, wouldn’t we?

People are much more accepting than we think they will be. It’s easy to have this misconception because, listening to their dogma, they seem utterly inflexible. Yet much of that rigidity is conceptually utopian and when it comes to actual practice with people they know and like, it softens considerably. It's those nameless, faceless atheists out there that they really depise. You may find that you lose nothing, gain aplomb and actually assist others along the path towards reason. I'm fine with my friends who choose to keep themselves partially closeted. I just want them to see that it's fear that keeps them there and to encourage them not to allow anxiety to dictate their lives.


PhillyChief said...

Boy, we were on parallel courses there until you got to the kids. Of course, I don't know if I could be with someone who was religious, but I know I couldn't raise kids in a faith. I couldn't lie to them. Of course, I wouldn't want to say, "you're an Atheist, boy!" Maybe your way is the best in the long run. Let them see that side and when they have questions, there you are to get them thinking.

I know I wrote something about this not long ago about being out and that was in response to the Exterminator's dealings with a friend having to stay closeted for work. It's tough. As far as not hearing about Atheists getting beaten up, well, it happens. I can think of a few this past summer, one being in Canada. There was also that story on ABC awhile ago about the girl in OK who had to stop going to school because she wouldn't join in the prayer before her basketball games. The whole town turned on her. Sad. I'd also say they probably don't bother covering it in the news since hey, it's just a no good Atheist getting beaten. They have it coming, right? Probably said something to start it. You know how it goes.

My wife has fears about someone wanting to do something to me or us because of my "Atheist crap" as she puts it. She's in no way religious, but she just isn't the type to either stir the pot or get real riled up over something. She can't get why I care so much about this. She teases me that it's a religion. The girl knows how to push my buttons.

I don't know what it must be like to hide who you are from friends or family. I have a cousin who didn't come out (gay out, not Atheist out) to his mom until he was in his fifties. My friend's brother is in his mid forties and it's still an unspoken thing that he's gay. I guess it's fear of rejection like you say. Honestly, I don't know how my family would react. They're all pretty religious. Before any family event I play out in my mind various confrontation scenarios, good and bad. So far, none have come up but it's only a matter of time.

John Evo-Mid said...

I should give you a little background on the marital thing. I got married 25 years ago and at the time I met her, she was an active (but far from fanatical) Catholic. It didn't seem like a bad bargain for a 30 year old atheist at the time. Catholics who go to mass every now and then are just playing at religion in my mind. Not the ideal mate for a guy like me, but I settled for it. Had she been a born-again Christian at the time, I'm quite sure we never even would have been dating, let alone getting married.

A year later my first child was born. My wife had a really bad post partum experience and basically went off the deep end. Through the miracle of modern medicine, we got her back. Soon afterwards she started attending a local Christian church. I wasn't going to fight it, with everything else we had going on. Soon she was so deep into the non-sense that no "fighting" would have even worked.

Now, looking back at those days, she fully credits Jesus Christ for saving her from insanity. I know fully well that what "saved" her was lithium and thorazine. I saw her at her worst, I saw her a few days after receiving meds and I saw her start church long after that. Her "reasoning" is that people were praying for her recovery and just to show them her gratitude, she started attending church. So the prayers saved her.

It's been a struggle. For both of us. It's not a happy situation when two people who care deeply about each other see the world so diametrically differently.

I did the best I could for my kids without tearing the family completely apart. I think they came out pretty good. Neither is particularly religious and my daughter speaks openly about doubting the existence of god. I'm very proud of her. She has her doubts and yet I never forced my way of thinking on her.

The Exterminator said...

You know, guys, I actually composed a long comment and then erased it because, ultimately, I think what I had to say is a no-brainer. Atheists should not proselytize; it's bad manners and a waste of time. On the other hand, we should never hide our atheism from anyone -- not our families, not our in-laws, not our friends, not our workmates, and most definitely not our kids --- when the subject of religion comes up. For me, the subject of religion comes up a whole lot more in the poltical sphere than it does in the personal. Everyone I know, even casually, is well aware that I don't believe in any gods. I'm happy to explain my atheism to anyone who asks, but I'm never interested in debating. My few religious relatives and friends know that, and, except for some good-natured mutual teasing now and then, we remove the subject of god from the table. It's amazing what a nice meal you can have together when you reach that understanding.

PhillyChief said...

I thought about the kid thing again before I went to bed last night. It may be a dangerous gamble, but I think Atheism is something someone, especially in today's climate, needs to arrive at on their own, and that means going through faith indoctrination.

This reminds me of when I studied art in college. I was very headstrong on what I wanted to do and how. I was looking for how to refine my skills. Instead, I kept having to work in styles and mediums I didn't care for and study artists and their works that I also didn't care for. I had a particularly angry rant one time before a visiting artist. His response really hit me hard. He said, "you have to understand something before you can reject it". That may sound obvious, but it wasn't for a headstrong 19 year old.

The Exterminator said...

Although I partially agree with you and the anonymous artist that "you have to understand something before you can reject it," I think that applies to the arts, particularly when you're still deciding which craft you'd like to hone. I don't think it applies to religion. I've never understood it, never wanted to understand it, and never will want to understand it. Frankly, I don't think there's anything to understand. The day that I start understanding nonsense will be the day I commit myself to a mental facility.

Now that doesn't mean I didn't learn about religion, or take a keen interest in it on a socio-historical basis, or study its influences on art, music, and literature -- and, unfortunately, politics and law. But maybe that's because I'm such a pretentious son of a bitch that I try to know as much about everything as I can. However, I don't think you need to know anything about religion to dismiss it as mere silliness.

I instinctively "knew" that god was a load of crap by the time I was five or six. The whole concept just didn't make any sense to me. I didn't need to know anything else about it except that it seemed ridiculous for people to think there was someone with superpowers in the sky. What's to understand?

PhillyChief said...

Hmmm, I feel an article brewin' in me 'ed. Stay tuned...

A. said...

Even for those of us who don't advertise our atheism, I think anyone can and should call out fuzzy headed thinking when they encounter it.

Frankly, I don't even think it takes an atheist to tell a biblical fundamentalist, "Hey, you cannot cite the bible, a contested source, as support for your contention that the universe is $6,000 years old."

You can be completely rational and skeptical without tatooing the word "atheist" on your forehead.

John Evo-Mid said...

No argument here, A.