I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
—STEPHEN F. ROBERTS
If you’re reading this, it is likely that you’ve decided that you don’t believe. In a time period in which the overwhelming majority of people not only believe in god(s) but consider themselves religious in one form or another, this can be an important, life-altering decision. While some regions of the world are, as a rule, less religious than others, the power of enculturation has always ensured the theistic majority’s place in human society ahead of the others, and being seen as nonreligious has long been the source of negative actions and sentiments on the behalf of religious groups. In fact, according to a 2011 study on anti-atheist prejudice sponsored by the American Psychological Association,1 American and Canadian participants said they distrust atheists nearly as much as they distrust rapists when compared to Christians or Muslims.
In some areas of the world, a believer’s knee-jerk reaction to one’s non-religiosity alone can cause a traumatic situation or confrontation, and it is completely natural to have reservations about becoming an open atheist or, because of cultural stigmas, to consider yourself an atheist in the first place. While you may not believe in an all-knowing God or wish to be part of any organized religion, the term atheist has a negative connotation associated with it that has been historically difficult to overcome. To combat this, nonbelievers throughout history have created new monikers that could be used to display nonbelief in a more positive manner—without the baggage that is often associated with atheist. Some of these terms are: bright, freethinker, (secular) humanist, nontheist, religiously unaffiliated, agnostic-atheist, skeptic, irreligionist, rationalist, and unbeliever. Then there are those atheists who prefer to say they are “spiritual but not religious” or that they “just don’t like organized religion.” In many cases, these phrases are uttered by atheists who are afraid to say what they are, due to stigma or conditioning.
Although the term atheist may have begun as a derogatory or pejorative title, the literal meaning of “without god” or “a lack of belief in god(s)” remains important for our purposes, and I will continue to use atheist and nonbeliever to refer to a nonreligious person who is skeptical in regard to a supernatural Creator. An open atheist is a person who does not hide the fact that they don’t participate in deity worship from their family, friends, and the general public. It is a common misconception that an atheist necessarily believes that the existence of a god or gods is impossible; the term simply refers to a person who doesn’t believe that is the case. In other words, an atheist might simply believe that God, as a concept, is improbable. The definition of God also becomes increasingly important here. For God in this context, we will ascribe the semi-traditional definition of a supernatural Creator and/or Governor. This description applies to the proposed deities from a wide variety of religions and cultures, and an atheist is simply somebody who doubts the existence of such a being—no more, no less.
Some believers may try to assert that atheism is itself a religion, but this could not be further from the truth. “Atheism” can’t be a religion because it’s not a belief system—a lack of belief in a god or gods is the only commonality that all atheists share. I often have to remind believers that I don’t pray to any idols, I don’t believe in supernatural forces, I don’t congregate with other atheists to worship atheism, and I don’t tithe to an atheist “church.”
The odds are that, if you are a closet atheist or a silent nonbeliever, your relatives or loved ones probably have a different approach to theological philosophies than you do—hence your hesitation in making your ideas public knowledge. Normally, familial disagreements in a broader sense would not be such an enormous problem, but when it comes to religious ideologies, specifically, the ideals and principles are often so firmly held and divisive that disagreements of this nature have been known to end an otherwise flourishing relationship. This is largely because most religions, and therefore most followers of those religions, presuppose the existence of a hell or hell-like afterlife in which “sinners” and nonbelievers reside after this life—as opposed to the supposed heaven or paradise where believers imagine they will be sent after death. Religions thrive on this mentality because it encourages proselytization and therefore the rapid spread of the tradition. As a result, the religious person far too often sees a nonbeliever, and instead of judging them based on their actions or simply not judging them at all, as most Abrahamic faiths instruct followers,2 they see a sinner whose actions must be corrected to avoid burning in a lake of fire. If you’re familiar with Christian teachings, for instance, you may be aware that it is often seen as a Christian’s moral duty to share with the nonreligious the “Good Word” of God—and to save the person from an eternity in hell. That’s part of how Christianity became so popular, by successfully permeating other cultures through missionary work, and other derived faiths share similar evangelical provisions.
Unfortunately, it is this same highly regarded concept of an afterlife that allows misguided religious people to justify the mistreatment of those who disagree with their religious ideologies—they are simply trying to protect you from eternal damnation in the afterlife by condemning you, insulting you, and even disowning you in this life.
This is not to say that becoming open about your disbelief is always going to be met with these negative reactions—and in fact, that is precisely what this work is hoping to prevent—but it is important to understand that if you experience negative reactions from religious kin, it is probably a result of the religion’s teachings and likely not from any personal vendetta or hatred. Even just acknowledging that simple fact could make any negative response easier to comprehend and therefore handle.
The term coming out has been applied to the nonreligious for years with great success, at least as early as August 2007 with the Out Campaign, which was popularized by noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and sought to let atheists know they aren’t alone by encouraging individuals to come out and state their disbelief publicly. A group called Openly Secular was founded in 2014 with similar goals.
Although coming out as atheist has become commonplace, the term began in reference to homosexuals who disclose their sexual orientation to their family and friends—becoming “openly gay.” This act, like becoming an open atheist, is often met with discrimination and familial misunderstanding at extreme levels and is often similarly associated with differing religious beliefs. Because most primary sects of the world’s major religions condemn the act of homosexuality,3 including fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, parents whose child’s sexual orientation doesn’t align with what is considered by their religion to be “moral” are forced to deal with the reality (as they perceive it) that their child might suffer in hell for this behavior. There are a number of programs (sponsored by Christian churches or other religious organizations) that have seen tremendous financial success in preaching religion as the “cure” to homosexual behavior and that one can ensure a place in heaven by “praying the gay away.” Of course, these “conversion therapy” programs do not work and have been linked to depression, suicidality, anxiety, social isolation, and decreased capacity for intimacy, according to a study analysis from Cornell University.4 In the everyday life of a newly public atheist, this mentality might be translated into the onslaught of religious literature and church invitations that often occur once an atheist has made their lack of religious convictions open and available to loved ones. The parallels between these two concepts of revelation are numerous, which is why the expression coming out will come up again as applied to atheism.
It is often difficult for a person who was raised in a religious tradition to deny the teachings they have known since childhood to such an extent that they no longer identify with them—and wish this to be known to others. It is even more difficult for someone to take an active stance against the ideologies or systems taught since childhood—not because the religious arguments are especially convincing or transcendent but because of the indoctrination that inherently takes place within a religious tradition.
Some who are involved in church on a deeper level might also fear political pressures to keep their disbelief a secret. In the United States, the majority of atheists probably come from a more liberal religious background, for the simple reason that most American Christians practice a form of cultural Christianity, in that they inherit the traditions but don’t necessarily understand or care about the intricacies of the religion. To expand upon the cultural aspects of religiosity, I’d like to quote an essay, entitled “Cultural Christianity,” which was published in my first book, Disproving Christianity and Other Secular Writings5:
I am referring to a phenomenon that I came across during the course of my research that, to me, demonstrates that religion can be something similar to heritage in that it is passed on from generation to generation through the parents.
For example, people who have extremely limited knowledge of the Bible or its implications may still choose to classify themselves as “Christians” on the basis that their parents did so. This phenomenon of children inheriting religion is often overlooked because the perpetrator guilty of indoctrination is not a dictator or cult leader, but their own parents. When a child is growing up, there is a crucial period in which they begin to ask questions about the origin of existence—in a religious family, these questions are typically answered [in accordance with] … church or Sunday school. Once these beliefs are instilled in the child, it becomes a part of his or her identity—so much so that, in many cases, the child will grow up and forever identify him- or herself with that specific religion without question or skepticism.
While a religious person may disagree with the term indoctrination in this context, I would argue that it is especially apt for the discussion of religious instruction of children. Contrary to popular belief, indoctrination itself does not imply any negative intentions or motivations; it simply means that somebody instructs with a bias in regard to a particular doctrine or ideology (usually in reference to a child).6 By taking a child to church and teaching them that the rules and ideas learned there are legitimate and sacred, saying prayers in the home, and teaching the validity of religious scriptures (even when they sometimes conflict with modern scientific findings), it is exactly this in which most religious families participate. I’d go as far as to say that most believers, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or something else, would probably admit that they instruct their children with a bias toward their particular faith.
After being exposed to this indoctrination, as most of us are in one form or another, a religion often becomes as firmly held in us as it is in those who raised us, leading to a cycle of similar indoctrination. One rarely questions what they have always known to be reality. It is only once a person begins to ask questions regarding the validity of these inherited traditions that they can break free from the cycle of indoctrination and, occasionally, experience a secular breakthrough within a family otherwise inclined toward religion. In some cases, the result is a nonbeliever who is surrounded by religious loved ones with whom they would like to share their thoughts and concerns, but can’t for fear of discrimination and other negative reactions.
It isn’t just familial honesty and transparency that the nonreligious have to deal with in daily life, however. Even those of us whose family members are mainly nonreligious, non-present, or otherwise supportive have to deal with coming out as a nonbeliever in public life with friends, coworkers, and even strangers. In fact, coming out as a nonreligious individual should not be thought of as a onetime occurrence but an ongoing event in which one must continually decide whether or not to speak openly about their rejection of faith with people with whom they interact. While it is often considered general etiquette to not discuss politics or religion in order to preserve personal and professional relationships, this does not mean that the topic never arises. And it is possible that a religious person presupposes religiosity in conversation and thereby forces the nonbeliever to either confirm or deny their assumptions. Coming out as an atheist can also apply to these interactions. The notion that informing your family that you are not religious is the entirety of the difficulty with coming out as an atheist could not be further from the truth. Some people choose to remain silenter in the public sphere in regard to religious preferences, which is completely acceptable and understandable. But it is also true that you shouldn’t be forced to hide your lack of religious ideologies—and having such open discourse shouldn’t necessitate a confrontational interaction.
After all, why does your lack of religious fervor have to be a source of controversy? Does it actually affect anybody but you in any real way? The fact that you don’t see sufficient evidence to cultivate a belief in a supernatural Creator, which they happen to believe in, should not be a point of disagreement that leads to an inability to get along or to have comfortable interactions. In fact, many would argue, as I have in the past, that “atheism” is the default human setting—as you are not born with knowledge of gods; it is simply from living and being introduced to the concept that a believer adopts theism. At the end of the day, your personal feelings and beliefs surrounding religion don’t impact the well-being of anybody else, and you shouldn’t be afraid to be as honest as possible with yourself and others about that fact. Hopefully, this guide will allow you to do just that, while maintaining your positive personal relationships with loved ones.
WHY SHOULD I COME OUT?
It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON, AMERICAN ESSAYIST
Coming out as an atheist can be scary. In some instances, it can be one of the most difficult things to do; not only are you telling your family that everything they’ve instilled in you since childhood is bunk, but you are telling them that you choose to disassociate yourself from religious belief altogether. Nonetheless, coming out is usually necessary and always something to carefully consider prior to committing. Overly religious family members and fears of possible bigotry and discrimination might intimidate you, but it is important to remember that the only way to fight such discrimination is to shatter the misconceptions about atheism and secularism that currently exist in society. According to the 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 1.6 percent of the thirty-five thousand respondents described themselves as “atheist,” although 6.3 percent described themselves as “secular unaffiliated” and 2.4 percent as agnostic. There is certainly a great deal more than 1.6 percent atheists in the United States, but only by people coming out and being open about their atheism can that be more accurately represented. Still, there are scenarios in which coming out is not the right choice. Individuals growing up in fundamentalist denominations of Islam and Christianity, for instance, may experience direct threats to their lives or livelihood as a result of being open about their atheism. In those cases, the issue isn’t as clear.
Religious traditions often use the idea that you are somehow a sinner since birth to guilt you into believing, while the truth is that you were probably a great person to begin with. So why should being an “atheist” change anything? In many cases, it is because believers often see atheism as “against god.” Negative associations with secularism go back as far as religious belief itself; in modern and ancient religions, nonbelievers are often represented as the “enemy.” By being open about the fact that you’re unconvinced by religions, you can show that atheism is not a result of “demons” or “Satan” or any other “evil” thing, but instead it is the result of thinking and research and reason. You can help add to a growing minority of openly atheist individuals bound together by nothing more than one thing: a lack of belief in gods.
By telling people you don’t believe, you’re making it a bit easier for the next person who has to. You are making it that much easier for the next generation and helping to change the (very false) perception of atheism as something that is anti-god or even pro-evil. More than anything else, coming out as an atheist gives you the opportunity to educate believers—to show them that it is entirely possible to be morally good without believing that we are being policed by an all-knowing deity.
Another reason to come out? Honesty. While some people are so fundamentally stuck in their beliefs that they will hate you for disagreeing, the vast majority of believers and nonbelievers alike are comfortable with some level of disagreement, and when conditions are ideal, they can usually agree to disagree. People often appreciate truth over deceit, so if you are attempting to avoid confrontation, honesty is the best policy.
In some cases, your loved ones will understand that it is natural to disagree, and they may even welcome friendly debate. But even when there is familial tension, it rarely exceeds the downsides of remaining silent. Just by allowing people to assume you are religious (which they undoubtedly will, considering the presence of a religious majority in many areas) does a great disservice to the larger secular community by downplaying how many atheists there actually are. While atheists are larger than some other minority groups, they are for the most part non-present in the political domain in many nations, including and especially the United States.
There is a lot of debate and argument about the word atheist. Some people are so inherently turned off by the word that they seek alternatives, including misapplying titles like agnostic—a term that is not mutually exclusive with atheist and in fact speaks to an entirely different issue. While atheism is about belief, agnosticism is about knowledge. Another misconception about atheism is that it somehow means someone denies even the very possibility of a deity. In all actuality, it simply means you don’t believe it to be the case—a point that should not be hard to understand with the complete lack of physical evidence that points to the existence of such a being or beings. Even if you’re 51 percent sure that there is no magical man in the sky, you are an atheist; and admitting that is the first half of the battle.
Copyright © 2021 by David G. McAfee