How Religious Bullying Makes Atheists So Angry: One New Atheist's Story

I thought I saw an atheist, with fur and pointed claws,
And wicked teeth for chewing up Judeo-Christian laws,
I ran, and tripped, and fell to earth, then hid behind a log—
It caught me, though, and licked my face—of course, it was a dog.

I thought I saw an atheist, though cleverly disguised
Not giant and reptilian, but human, normal sized,
It looked to be engaging in productive, useful labor;
But no, this was no atheist—this person was my neighbor!

(Excerpted from Digital Cuttlefish‘s completely delightful, longer bit of verse “I Thought I Saw An Atheist”.) 

A bright, young, very friendly atheist (who I know in real life and of whom I am very proud) has been in touch with me the last 8 months frequently to discuss his insatiable philosophical curiosity and his burgeoning disbelief, and to get my pointers on debates he has been having within his highly religious, tightly-knit minority community. With his permission, I reproduce his remarks to me last night anonymously:

I just came out as an atheist to my mom. That certainly did not go as well as I hoped for. Apparently I’m a close-minded stubborn person who had the devil come to me at night and put these ideas in my head while I was sleeping. Really. That’s what she said.

Honestly, I feel good that I told her the truth. But I also feel pretty bad. It’s not a good net feeling as of right now. Only because I feel pretty lonely, in the sense that, everyone who I’ve tried to talk about this to (and the whole time open mindedly SEEKING reason to believe, and willing to look into every angle they proposed and examine it thoroughly, have all by the end of the conversation called me stupid, unreasonable, close minded, even a demon.

And these people, make up the majority of my friends.

They’ve all begun to speak to me condescendingly, word is getting out that I’m a “dangerous” person to be friends with. Hey, I told my friend of 10 years a few weeks ago that I was an atheist. She completely cut off all communication with me: de-friended on facebook, no response to my texts or calls. Pretty much everyone I grew up with, all my friends, all think I’m an evil person.

While I’m glad I got it out, the actual net feeling, as of now, isn’t a very good one. All they’re doing is making me starting to hate everyone who believes in this. These are some of the most discriminatory prejudiced people I’ve ever seen…

“If you’re not like us, fuck you.” How is that any different than the KKK or Nazis?

That’s how I’m beginning to feel about the whole religion honestly. I feel like if i saved one of their lives a few years ago, then later told them I was an atheist, they would completely disown me and null every good thing I did for them as a friend.

That is how the anger starts. That is why, even if sometimes atheists go over the top and get all frothy, they deserve to be heard. After I replied to him that I was sorry that he had to go through this and assured him that this is why we atheist activists are so passionate about building community (which some of us, like me, did not have at all when we went through coming out to our family and friends and being alienated), he wrote:

At this point, I’m glad I at least “belong” to something now, you know? I can find comfort that others go through it also and understand. You’re the only one at this point who understands my point of view, and I’m grateful.

Of course, the religious bullies and those “moderate” atheists who like to bully other atheists for being gauche enough to trouble ourselves over religion would love to twist those words and say, “See! He wants to ‘belong’ that makes him a religious zealot as bad as a fundamentalist! Atheists don’t belong to GROUPS? What will they do? Sit around and chortle condescendingly over the non-existence of the silly gods of the unwashed hoi polloi?!?!”

Or maybe they’ll just accuse me of corrupting the youth. I could totally dig that.

Jason summed up the atheist’s predicament really well the other day:

atheists [need] to fight to be allowed to do the exact same outreach that religious folks do with impunity today. It’s a matter of privilege — the majority has the privilege to say they exist, because they’re in the majority and know it. They also have the privilege to say really stupid and hateful things about the minority via the same medium (e.g., via ad campaigns that smear irreligous folks), and there’s not enough of the minority to kick up a large enough stink over it to make a difference. Meanwhile, we make one billboard that says “hey, you can be a good person without religion”, people lose their shit.

His longer piece on this topic, How dare we advertise our existence!? deserves to be heard out, too. My own strongest statement on this topic was my post Who Cares About Atheists? and an overview of my views on the topic is What I Think About The Need For Atheist Solidarity and Activism. And our fellow Freethought blogger Greta Christina’s classic on the topic is, of course, Atheists and Anger. And Richard Wade helps countless atheists and their religious friends and families with enormous gobs of compassion. I asked him about what atheists like my young intelligent free thinking friend here should do with all the anger that they receive for their atheism during my interview with him about anger in families divided over religion.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Daniel Schealler

    You’re not alone.

    So many people have gone through what you’re going through right now. I know that doesn’t make it suck less in practical terms. But it’s worth remembering that you’re not alone. Many of us have gone through what you’re going through and have emerged on the other side all the stronger for it.

    It’s okay to be pissed off with the people around you. They should know better.

    But at the same time, a little understanding can take the edge off the anger – they don’t actually know better.

    Consider: If they knew any better, then they wouldn’t react this way, but they are reacting this way – therefore, they don’t know any better.

    In the case of the people close to you… In my experience, these people are mostly scared – partly scared for you, and partly scared that they are losing you, and partly scared of you – the latter because you’re challenging deeply held beliefs that shape their personal identities.

    That doesn’t make what they’re doing okay. But I always found it helpful to understand why people do hurtful things – while always remaining mindful that an explanation is not an excuse.

    This might help:

    Or maybe they’ll just accuse me of corrupting the youth. I could totally dig that.

    I’ll fetch the hemlock. ^_^

  • Lyra

    My first recollection of Christian intolerance was when a girl won a prize in my town for writing an article where she said that anyone who didn’t want to say “under God” in the pledge should be forcibly expelled to Russia.

    There was a girl in my class who was a Jehovah’s Witness. The Lutheran adolescents of my town did not know what this was, so they decided she was an atheist. I overheard a group of them one day talking about how they wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she was (supposedly) an atheist.

    Later, a girl in my class wrote an article for the school newspaper saying that our annual (and mandatory) Veteran’s day school assembly was violating the law by having a minister come in and give prayers. One of the teachers told her that if people didn’t like the prayer, they should get out of the country.

    When Christians ask why atheists are so angry, I remember those days.

  • Jason Thibeault

    It’s great that you’re there to be a support structure of sorts for your anonymous friend. My own deconversion would have been significantly less traumatic (in the sense of causing me to clam up and become very introverted generally) if I’d had someone to discuss my nascent atheism.

  • raven

    Oh gee.

    Hitchens: Religion poisons everything.

    Dennett. Religion is the best vehicle ever invented for promoting social conflict.

    It’s also a reliable way to split families apart forever. It happens sometimes.

    I’d urge anyone in the position of this “young person” to weigh the cost/benefits of being out as an atheist. It’s not like it’s anyone’s business what someone thinks about Imaginary Sky Fairies.

    Atheists aren’t exactly rare. The No Religions run around 22% of the population, 66 million USians, and among the best and brightest our society has produced.

    Which “tight knit, religious, minority” community. This could and does happen in any cult community, ultraorthodox Jewish, Amish, Mormon, SDA, Fundie, Moslem, Scientology, some Catholics etc.. People who leave cult religions often leave their families and friends behind forever.

    • Alicia

      A great example of sociocentric thinking.

  • Ophelia Benson


  • boopsey

    How sad. Such a talented young person too! Hopefully, his friends and family will comes to terms with his (dis)belief and he will remain a cherished part of their lives. Sadly, that probably won’t be the case for all of them.

    The reactions he describes remind me of episodes in my youth that evoked similar reactions from my parents. It’s hard. It gets better. My advice: Try to forgive them because your life will be better if you can manage to do so.

  • Randomfactor

    Pretty much everyone I grew up with, all my friends, all think I’m an evil person.

    He grew up. They didn’t.

  • LRA

    AW!!! I’m sad for your anonymous friend. I don’t come out about my atheism except to trusted folks. Don’t want the discrimination. Plus I live in Texas… which is pretty great most of the time, but occasionally frustrating when it comes to this.

  • Nenona

    This is currently what I’m dealing with, as well.

    My own parents have threatened to disown me if I didn’t bow my head and agree that god was master, I was servant, etc, etc.

    They’re utterly racist, utterly sexist, and childish to so many degrees–I have an IQ of 145 and love books, learning, I’ve discovered body acceptance and privilege and I try to check mine when I can, I’m very careful about what I say and I’m accepting of all people–but my parents are homophobic and counted among the people that think Muslims are devil-worshippers, and refuse to listen when I try to tell them that the 9/11 bombers had as much in common with your average Muslim as your average Christian has in common with the Oklahoma bombers.

    This is the kind of environment many young atheists are in. We’re trapped where we are until we can save up enough money(if that’s even possible), get out, find a group of people to be around who don’t rip bits of us to piece every time we near the n-word thrown around by a bunch of our family to describe decent people. I may have to lie about my morals and faiths in order to *get a job* eventually.

    Honestly what I wish I could do is set up a sort of safe house–for women like myself who are at the command of our misogynist families, it would function as an atheist safehouse for girls who would otherwise be forced to bow and scrape for years under the commanding hand of a verbally abusive father put in charge of a family by the church. I’ve seen a lot of atheists in college who’s parents couldn’t know–would never know or accept what their child had found on their own, and honestly, I have already planned out my farewell from my insane and moronic family that loves the bible more than their own intelligent daughter. I can’t wait to get away from these people.

    No one thinks atheists get treated so badly–and I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of theists called bullshit and/or claimed my parents weren’t ‘real christians’–lol, no, they believe in jesus, just like any other christian. For any violence, there is forgiveness. They don’t have to worry about avoiding it, there’s forgiveness anytime they like it. That’s the type of people this religion creates, and it separates families from their children, and kidnaps the children of atheist parents, and lowers the likelihood of getting a job, getting an apartment, finding friends, and keeping friends if one is “out”–especially where I live, in The Bible Belt.

    Anyone not willing to accept this reality is a fool.

    • Libby

      Anyone suffering this kind of exclusion is more than welcome to come and stay here, in my house in London. An atheist, student house that is generally HAPPY, and very rarely angry, except when we read stuff like this. :-).

  • dochopper

    Most of the NON-BELIEVERS I know came to that conclusion after many years of being raised in a believing Home .

    God sure didn’t spend a lot of time at my house when I was growing up. And we were at church dang near every time the doors were open.

    The secret we shared with each other as teens was just how Unlike the Norman Rockwell portrayed vision nearly all our family’s were.

    This above is a short explanation. I am not a pleasant person when some one confronts me about The G*D thing.

    I suggest they take care of their own and let me worry about my self.

  • Eclectic

    Pretty much everyone I grew up with, all my friends, all think I’m an evil person.

    Er… no, they don’t. They say they do, but they’re reading from a script.

    Maybe some of them actually believe that, but most are just confused and in shock and are falling back on rote responses.

    As Dan Savage says about coming out to one’s family, you have to give them a certain period of Being A Dick About It. While there are sad stories, an amazing number do come around after the surprise wears off.

    The thing to do is not burn any bridges while they do their little phases of grief thing. You know, denial, anger and bargaining. Try to weather the storm without striking back too violently and note progress. “But don’t you believe the world had to come from something?” is classic bargaining, and if you can keep some detachment, is something you can take heart from.

  • ischemgeek

    Why am I angry? When I have to listen to my mother insist that 1) Religion is the One True Source for morality and no true athiest is a moral person. She agrees that I’m generally decent but chalks that up to me being “subconsciously Christian” – wtf does that even mean, anyway?!
    2) Any religious wignut who does something horrible isn’t truly religious, they’re a secret athiest.
    3) That because I’m an athiest, I’m a Nazi (Hitler was an athiest, she says – all that talk about God and a holy mission was just to get the peasentry riled up, donchano). Oddly, this somehow meshes with her thinking of me as a generally decent person. I don’t know how, but critical thinking has never been my mom’s strong suit.
    4) That all children should be sent to religious schools, even if their parents don’t want them to be sent there (and even though she sent my sister and I to a secular public school because driving an hour and a half every day to the nearest religious private school was too much). Public schools should have prayer classes, and kids who don’t want to do it ‘don’t have to’ – they can do something like clean garbage of the school grounds or do chores for the custodian instead, to “encourage” them to see the light and come to prayer class
    5) “If you want to be damned and burn in hell, that’s your choice, dear. I’m just trying to warn you.”
    6) Athiests should recieve longer prison sentences because without God to give us morality, we’re more likely to reoffend (which is why athiests are under-represented in prison…?).
    7) Getting Religion should be reason enough for parole to be granted, even if the person in question has otherwise been a mean, nasty SOB.
    8) The Death Penalty should be reinstated – but only for athiests, homosexuals, and the like if they commit capital offenses. Religious people have God’s guidance and so won’t need the deterrent.
    And so on.

    … It gets me a little pissed off. I could start in on her religious homophobia even more (“I’m not homophobic! I used to be, but I’m not anymore!” “Mom, the only way that you’ve unbent is that you don’t think they should be locked up or monitored constanty anymore. You still think that they shouldn’t be allowed to work for the government, in hospitals, or with children.” “Well, that’s because gays are more likely to be rapists and pedophiles.” – actual exchange I had with her on the topic once, and I’ve got plenty more where that came from), but that’d be going off-topic.

  • Brian

    This type of story is precisely why I don’t like to share my disbelief. It amazes me how much my lack of belief matters to believers.

  • raven

    It amazes me how much my lack of belief matters to believers.

    Don’t let it bother you too much. They really, deeply sincerely hate each other too. We all know the rules. The Protestants hate the Catholics and vice versa. The fundies hate everyone. Everyone hates them back. The Jews, Moslems, and Pagans keep out of sight.

    If it wasn’t for the Enlightenment and a few centuries of secular rule, they would still be killing each other. Northern Ireland is just the last gasp of the Reformation wars which have so far flickered on and off for 450 years.

  • raven

    …lowers the likelihood of getting a job, getting an apartment, finding friends, and keeping friends if one is “out”–especially where I live, in The Bible Belt.

    It depends a lot on where you live. Here on the west coast, there are more Pagans and New Agers than fundies. Fundies are around but they aren’t common.

    In several decades, virtually no one has ever asked me what religion I am. At work it has never happened. Partly it’s considered impolite, but mostly no one really cares. One of the more common religions is “apathetic”.

  • Paul

    I’m shocked that such an attitude still exists in enlightened society. The worst I get in the UK, is mild offence and a bit of embarrasment when I get slightly more opinionated than I should on the subject. Saying that I’m an athist pretty much results in “oh, okay”, though.

    I hope your correspondant can find some new, actually good friends, ones who don’t care a fig what religious beliefs one holds. even some who are actually good Christains instead of the assholes he’s apparently saddled with woulud be an improvement.

    Seriously, how does one abandone someone they’ve known well for ten years just because they find out that you’re not identical to them? It totally boggles my mind.

  • larksput

    This young man can come live with me anytime. My daughter is off to college and as an atheist is quite at home now at UC Berkeley. I know it really depends on where you live these days as to how you are treated. We lived in a very small religious town, and most of her (not mine) other relatives were heavy believers, but we made it through the tough times. I am thinking about setting up a web site for atheist kids who have “come out” and need a place to stay as they prepare themselves for college and beyond…
    Anyway our numbers are growing and that is a good thing.