There are a lot of anti-atheistic responses to us that get indignant that we try to organize, have community, and make ourselves known as a public presence. A lot of people reflexively and unfairly respond to all of this by feeling it as inherently threatening and inherently rude and intolerant. The most upsetting part of this for me is that it makes clear that to the average person, the spiritual, emotional, and communal needs of atheists, as atheists, is rather irrelevant. I’m sure the indifference to our needs is largely rooted in ignorance. Few people, I think, have any active animus towards us and cannot be blamed for simply being oblivious to the specific kinds of challenges we face as atheists.
But they are real and serious and, for many of us, painful. Atheists in repressive theocracies are bullied into violating their consciences and participating (or pretending to participate) in religions in which they do not believe for fear of punishment under anti-apostasy laws. And even where we are free to be “out”, there is tremendous social pressure on many of us to avoid the stigma of non-conformist refusal of religious identification. In a deeply secularized culture, like America’s, few people are willing to countenance for a second the logical conclusions of their modern, secularized values and scientifically advanced beliefs and explicitly embrace secularism down to the level of their spiritual and ethical and metaphysical affirmations. They still dutifully defer to religion, even if only with lip service, rather than let their consciences acknowledge their own secularity.
In many ways, we live in an atheist culture. Despite the Religious Right’s theocratic designs on the government and their steady erosion of some of our protections against unduly religious government, most of our actual legislation is made without god. We have a thriving god-indifferent scientific community and broader god-ignoring academic community. We have a wealth of god-free art that is free to draw on religious imagery in ways that can even speak to secularists and which only occasionally gives obligatory (though often nauseating) sentimental nods to faith and miracles when pandering to the masses. And the ever-backlashing religious right aside, our culture is generally pluralistic even when praising faith and implicitly therein values modernity’s freedom of conscience over the submission of all to any one religion. Even the religious right is a big tent of peaceful coexistence among Christian factions, who used to fight bloody wars, and the Jews, who in previous eras were far more abused by their Christian hosts.
So we are all deeply shaped by secular values, even the religious among us, and the explicit atheism of activist atheists is in many ways only a logical coming to consciousness in which some people’s words start accurately describing and unabashedly championing the actual god-free values, ideals, beliefs, and habits which a vast majority of us actually live by already. In many ways, the atheist does not call for a cultural revolution but only an acceptance of the revolution which has already occurred and an active, philosophical resistance to the reactionary right wing religious forces which want to undo the progress and to counter our actual values and ideals by claiming that our only real values can be religiously derived ones.
We atheists are not really very much innovators but we are some of the most outspoken spokespeople for the values we already have and their secular sources against those who denigrate them and claim we need religiously grounded ones or the whole culture will go the way of the Roman Empire.
But for all our secularity, the religious still have reflexive name-brand identification as the producers of morality and spirituality—at least in the lip service given to them, even as countless nominally religious people shake their heads at the clear moral regressiveness and obstructionism of their religious traditions. And so we bold atheists who embrace our godlessness are hardly any different than our highly secularized friends, neighbors, and family, but because of what we say, despite all its deep congruences with what they also do, we are prejudicially mistrusted, accused of having emptier lives than them, accused of lacking any moral restraint or compass, assumed to be miserable, irascible, anti-social, etc. There is a scandal in faithlessness which persists.
And the practical consequence is that many of us are left hung out to dry by our families, neighbors, friends, and peers. Despite sharing our godless methodologies, fellow academic friends will find our explicit outspoken atheism distasteful, crude, or elitist. Despite sharing our egalitarianism and pro-women, pro-gay stances, our friends will look at us askance for outright rejecting the religious institutions that perpetuate authoritarian attitudes, patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia.
Despite our shared experience of the transformative power of science and technology, we are viewed as closed-minded or judgmental when we insist that charlatan woo-peddlers not deceive our friends, family, and communities. Despite our overall culture’s overwhelming commitment in the abstract to the principle of the separation of church and state, we are treated like petty cranks for objecting to state sanctioned prayers and state-funded religious proselytization in our science classrooms, military, and charities.
And in our own families we are accused of deep betrayal and even threatened with disowning and other withdrawals of emotional or financial supports, even though, at our core, we share the same values they do.
And it is in this context that many an atheist feels pressure to keep quiet, keep closeted, not risk alienating their friends and family by speaking up.
And that’s a major reason why I am so passionate about speaking up here on this blog and about being part of an exciting network of atheist friends online.
We atheists deserve each other’s solidarity, we deserve each other’s help thinking through what we should believe about morality and metaphysics and all sorts of other questions that our principled rejection of ready-made, but shallow, religious answers forces us to go solve the hard way, for ourselves.
We atheists deserve help and a vibrant community that works out those issues from common assumptions and a common way of life. We deserve each other’s shared wisdom about how to fulfill the spiritual longings, desires for ritual, inevitability of death, and quest for meaning and value in life without the religious aids we find false and/or crude.
And most of all, we atheists deserve the kind of support that Richard Wade gives to the heartbreaking number of people whose families reject them for their adherence to their own intellectual conscience. Below, in the preface to a post with the self-explanatory title, Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Minister Father Threatens to Withhold College Tuition, Richard describes how often he receives letters about such awful treatment and he offers the kind of caring and wise advice so many atheists need and likely never would have heard before we started organizing.
So, to close this meditation on where we are as atheists and why we need to care about each other as fellow atheists, here’s a model of what caring for one’s fellow atheist, and one’s fellow human being, looks like:
I get so many letters just like this, more than I can keep up with, where precious love is jeopardized because despite great effort, one family member is simply not capable of believing any more, and other family members are stuck in their fear, or anger, or pride, or ignorance, or prejudice, or a combination of those. For those people whose letters I have not answered directly, I hope you can find in the ones I have answered some lesson or idea that you can tweak to apply to your own situation.
The single most important thing I consistently advise is to keep alive the possibility of love. Without betraying your principles or your own needs, without becoming a victim or a puppet, somehow keep the relationship open to future interaction, negotiation and reconciliation, even if it’s tense or distant for the time being. Don’t just write if off. People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation. The other details of the outcome that you want may or may not happen, but as long as you keep your heart open to those who are upset with you, then there is hope for the rest.
Richard’s explicit advice to that specific letter writer is terrific and can be read here.
Six months ago, I compiled a full list of Richard’s first year’s worth of invaluable advice columns, which I encourage my all my atheist friends to peruse here.
And below is a list of links to the letters Richard has answered in the last six months:
You may send your questions for Richard to . Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.