Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect?
A Midwestern atheist tells of sitting in her lunchroom at work and listening as conversation opened up around her about religious differences. Her co-workers included several kinds of Protestants, a Catholic, even a Jew. Sensing they were in risky territory, they worked to find common ground. “At least there aren’t any atheists around here,” one woman said in a warm inclusive tone.
What’s a girl to do in a situation like that? Should she out herself or just keep quiet? In his seminal book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity , sociologist Erving Goffman posed the perennial quandary of stigmatized persons: “To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where." (p. 42)
Disclosure feels risky because it is. In 2008, Atheist Nexus gathered “coming out” stories from over 8000 visitors who described themselves as atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic, skeptic, and so forth. Some of the tales are painful to read. One woman said, “I've had people literally, physically BACK away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home." A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost his marriage: “My wife told me that I'm caught in Satan's grip, and confessed that after I deconverted she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn't is because she's financially dependent on me.” Elsewhere a young woman tells of losing thirty-four Facebook friends when she announced her lack of belief.
The consequences of anti-atheist stigma are public as well as private. Most self-described atheists are acutely aware of survey results showing that U.S. atheists are less electable than reviled minorities including Muslims and gays. Seven states still have laws on the books that ban nonbelievers from holding public office. A Florida minister whose deconversion recently made national news said that job interviews were cancelled when prospective employers found out.
In the minds of many believers atheism is linked with immorality, and despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, religious leaders reinforce this stereotype. I once attended a Palm Sunday service at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle. The minister was determined that his congregation should believe the resurrection of Christ to be a physical, historical event. He said, “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot.” I found myself thinking, if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?!
Anti-atheist stereotypes work to bond believers together in part because many Americans think that they have never met an atheist. A stigmatized minority can be the nameless faceless “other” that people love to hate as long as members remain nameless and faceless. But as the gay rights movement has shown, things get more complicated—and attitudes start changing--when we realize we are talking about our friends, beloved family members, and co-workers. Coming out has been such a powerful change agent for gays, that atheists (along with other faceless groups like Mormons and women who have had abortions) are explicitly taking a page from the gay rights movement and launching visibility campaigns.
That is easier than it sounds. Among atheist and humanist leaders, passionate disagreements have erupted about what kind of visibility will actually help advance acceptance and rights for those who eschew supernaturalism.