The Silent Atheists

This is a repost of something I really liked but which got buried by new posts before it was widely read. It was originally posted June 11, 2012.

When atheists are vocal, in nearly any manner, we get accused of being horribly negative, no matter what we actually say. Now, I don’t think this should be taken as an excuse to be unrestrainedly negative. I don’t think we should judge, as many atheists whine, that since we will take flak no matter what, we had might as well be careless or cruel in our criticism of theism or of religious people generally. We should not give people good cause to hate us and want to silence us simply because they already try to silence us without legitimate provocation. But nonetheless, we have to recognize that when we are criticized for being vocal, it’s often simply because there are unjust social norms against criticizing people’s personal religious beliefs and against criticizing beliefs in gods in general.

And, somewhat more understandably but still problematically, there are mainstream social norms against proselytizing in any way (even in an ironically atheistic way) when it comes to matters of religion. These norms are not only important to many non-fundamentalist religious people but are especially prevalent among atheists and irreligious people, and they are often the most adamant of anyone about them. And so whether our criticisms of theism or its religions are actually good or actually bad. or civilly presented or uncivilly lobbed, is all a matter of indifference on a social level. There are implicit norms we are breaking just by speaking. And some of them are enforced vociferously by fellow atheists. These atheists’ masterplan is to just preach that no one ever really and seriously talk about the substance of religious beliefs with each other so that in that way religious conflict will go away and everything will be more peaceful. They don’t want atheists fighting for their own viewpoints and values and adding yet another side in conflict with the others. Apparently debates about fundamental metaphysics and ethics can only ever be carried out in hopelessly irrationalistic and tribalistic ways, because that’s what inter-religious strife has always amounted. And so atheists cannot offer anything more than the same and so should not be active participants in debates about the truth of such things, but instead just protest all inter-religious conflict. Meanwhile the groups that ignore such encouragement to stop recruiting keep growing in numbers and political influence all the time. One day maybe they will voluntarily just stop because the conflict averse non-believers keep insisting.

We vocal atheists will hardly get any credit for silence even if we join the silent atheists who foolhardily chide us for vocalizing our opinions (which they themselves actually share but think it too impolite to very publicly utter or fight for). While vocal religions flourish and while we vocal atheists get flak for actually lifting a finger to advance our own perspectives, our acquiescently silent cohorts have historically never gotten much of a pat on the head for not speaking. They do not get so much as a cookie for the favor of staying out of religions’ way as they run rampant.

The majority of unbelievers are either closeted or relatively silent and deferent to the theistic beliefs, identities, feelings, and traditions that surround all of us. They already are the silent majority of us unbelievers. And their way has only led to us being marginalized with impunity and demonized without retort. And the broader public is so grateful to all their silence that it reflexively tars all of atheism as one ironically foolish religion, all on account of a few of us having the gall to speak up. That’s how much your silence and disassociation from organization has been noted and respected, silent atheists. You’re conscripted to the cause of the first atheist to open his or her mouth. And this is not by other atheists, mind you. Other atheists recognize that while there can be atheistic religions, our atheism does not conscript us into any of them automatically or default into being any one of them all by itself. (In fact many atheists choose to evade religiousness altogether and do so successfully.) But those for whom you silent atheists have walked on egg shells feel completely at ease in tarring you and mischaracterizing you since, thanks to your obeisant silence, they don’t know a goddamned thing about you.

To understand the silent atheist’s predicament, a detour into moral psychology is helpful.

There are (at least) two kinds of moral actions. One kind of moral action involves doing something that is minimally expected of you and which is expected to be easy. No one pats you on the back for these moral acts. No one congratulates you for not pushing old people down flights of stairs. No one congratulates you for not thieving or lying or cheating or stealing. You’re just not supposed to. And the reason you probably don’t do these things is simply because you are prudent and want to avoid the risks involved anyway. And oftentimes there’s really not much of anything in it for you to do these terrible things. Unless you’re some sort of a sociopath or a psychopath, you’d be much happier not hurting people anyway.

Another kind of moral action involves doing something so extraordinarily morally good that people think you are not just minimally and obligatorily morally decent like an average person with an average conscience and set of moral feelings, but that you are actually someone who deserves special moral credit. You are actually morally praiseworthy. You are an especially moral person or you at least have done an especially morally good deed.

Sometimes these actions may even be considered supererogatory; i.e., so demanding, or even heroic, that they go well beyond merely the fulfillment of duty. These actions are sometimes seen as things we could never blame the average person for not doing but that we are especially appreciative that some people do anyway. It is an interesting moral philosophy debate to have whether there really are acts that, in this way, “go beyond the call of duty” or whether we all are really duty bound to be heroic and the majority of us are simply morally lazy and want to lower the bar when we designate the really hard moral demands as “supererogatory”.

And then there are some cases of simply not doing evil that will garner a lot of special praise, though never be seen as supererogatory. These are cases where you had a clear and advantageous opportunity to do something evil that was both highly beneficial to your own interests and something which you nearly certainly could have gotten away with. People tend to cynically assume that the average person is unlikely to withstand such a temptation and so will praise people who do, even though the action is itself only of the minimally decent kind. Or, even if they do think withstanding is normal and likely, they will still praise those who withstand as a way of reinforcing the behavior and encouraging it in others: “Be good even when you can really get one over on us, and we’ll make it up to you with admiration and maybe even some tangible future advantages in return.”

But I digress.

There is nothing immoral at all about being an atheist or propounding one’s atheism. But, unfairly, there are perverse social norms against it. And the atheists who remain silent do not get rewarded for doing anything especially praiseworthy even under these perverse norms because it is not seen as either especially heroic to silence one’s atheistic thoughts and nor is it seen as requiring any special resistance to temptation. It falls into the category of thankless obedient acts. Typically, you keep silent as an atheist just to avoid trouble, not because there’s any respect to be had or future return favors on account of your silence.

But someone who puts their religion ever so partially aside to be conciliatory or gracious to others is congratulated. And also when they insist on adherence to their faith and take principled stands on it then that must be respected. It’s their religion, after all. Of course that reasonably matters to them and trumps other concerns. Now, it is uncomfortable when their religious insistences are really detrimental to others and then we may either call them a false realization of their religion (thereby sparing the poor abused and exploited religion any blame on account of their sordidness) or we may criticize the content of their ideas as narrowly as necessary and still respect what is religious about it as good.

The atheist does not get any congratulations for shutting up because what is their atheism? Some nothingness? Why should they care about that? It’s not like a matter of conscience. Who cares or could possibly be passionate about what they don’t believe. What an absurdity. And really atheism is just a negativity anyway so only a rude person would want to spread that negativity to others. Only a negative person would want to cut down what others believe in, take comfort in, and form their identity with.  So, no cookie, silent atheist.


What if enough vocal atheists come along? Ones who do see their atheism as an important part of their identity—and not because the gods who they think do not exist actually matter to them, but because they think commitment to those rational principles that show them that no gods exist are important, and because dispelling others of false beliefs and practices is something they passionately take to be a moral imperative.

What if these atheists come along and adamantly argue that atheism is one of the (many) tests of moral probity and thorough intellectual rigor? What if atheism comes to be understood as the sort of thing that contributes to many people’s identities in a key way? What if it comes to be understood as related to people’s core values and beliefs about the way the world is? What if these atheists make people stop thinking of atheism as merely a nothing, a negative, or a matter of indifference and mere nuisance? What if they make people see atheists in general as people for whom religious matters are worth analyzing and taking stands on because of their consequences to people’s lives?

Then maybe the silent atheists would get some credit too, the way committed religious people do, for holding all that fierce passion and identity in and for not trying to change anyone’s minds. Maybe they would be appreciated for the ways they affably abide their neighbors’ delusions? Maybe they would be admired for the ways that they are tolerantly indifferent when religious people make terrible ethical or personal or spiritual decisions because of their religious errors. Maybe they would get some credit for the ways they avoid the cardinal sin of proselytization.

So maybe we vocal atheists help the silent atheists after all. Just being silent on their own sure wasn’t getting them (or us) anywhere.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • Patrick RichardsFink

    I think that at least part of the issue is that the loudest people tend to be not so much atheists as anti-theists, people who make the astonishing claim that religion itself (as opposed to the mechanisms of organized religion) are the source of evil in the world, the proponents of the myth of human perfectibility.

    Actions that are praiseworthy (as opposed to the merely moral) are frequently praiseworthy because praise is not sought by the doer — and a life that is praiseworthy (as opposed to a single action) is a reflection of character rather than beliefs. The theism or atheism that informs their character is irrelevant.

    As far as ruminations on the closeted nature of most atheism, we really should have a lengthy discussion about the dynamic of the closet. The more I read about it from an atheist perspective, the more uncomfortable I become, as it is beginning to feel like an appropriation of the term. While there are similarities between being hidden as queer in the straight world and being hidden as an atheist in the religion-steeped dominant culture, there are important differences as well that deserve exploration.

    I personally would love to see more vocal atheists and committed secularists in dialog and less “religion is mental illness” diatribe — more voices like yours, in other words.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Would this discussion about the closet include the fact that a lot of queer theory about the closet and invisible-minority status originated with discussions of antisemitism and conversations about passing privilege among African Americans (most notably the Harlem Renaissance)?

      But we can’t discuss the similarities and differences if it’s taboo to talk about closets and passing WRT to religion at all, and personally as a queer man, I don’t compartmentalize in that way.

  • Poppy

    I am silent about my beliefs (or lack thereof) because I have family to support and rent to pay.
    Not going to lose my job just to make you feel better, pal.

    • John Moriarty

      I could not imagine anyone making such a risk or certainty in any way a test of probity or honour or decency or whatever. I would not take that risk either. Maybe there are other things you would actually like to do?
      For my own part, I am retired on pension and beholden to no man.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I am silent about my beliefs (or lack thereof) because I have family to support and rent to pay.
      Not going to lose my job just to make you feel better, pal.

      The post should have been clear that it was aimed at the silent atheists who want to silence other atheists and otherwise complain about vocal atheists speaking up. It was not aimed at those avoiding persecution for their atheism.

    • kagekiri

      I’m not sure how much of the article you read….but you may want to try again, because you seem to have read criticism that doesn’t exist in the post.

      Dan says silent atheists should stop giving vocal atheists crap for being vocal, because all atheists stand to benefit from the actions of vocal ones.

      There’s nothing there about “feeling better”, or even suggesting that silent atheists HAVE to or SHOULD be vocal ones or that silent atheists are bad. It’s more like “silent atheists who silence others are not helping”.

    • Poppy

      I read it several times and it felt rather like a criticism of all silent atheists.
      As I said, I can’t afford to be ‘out’. There are too many religious-nuts in my company. Every day is a litany of jesus this and god that. I truly would love to tell them where to shove it but I can’t without risking my job.
      I’m too old for a new career and too young to retire.
      I donate to atheist causes as anonymously as I can and I have a separate email account for things like this. I am not on facebook or twitter, just in case.
      Our old boss forbade halloween because, you know, Satan. *sigh*
      If I have misread your intent Mr. Fincke, I apologize. I’m feeling a bit touchy right now.
      My dad’s really old and two co-workers had their parents die in the past week, about the same age as my dad. Maybe that’s it. Thoughts of parental mortality making me feel like screaming.
      I am sorry that I was sour with you.

    • Daniel Fincke

      No problem, Poppy. I am empathize with your sorrow over your thoughts of your parents’ mortality. And I apologize for failing to communicate my intent clearly enough for you.

  • Chris

    I am no longer silent, and over the last few years at work we have been having interesting religious discussions!! and I have discovered that I am not nearly as alone as I thought!!! A lot of the younger generation is agnostic/atheist!! I am much happier in my life now that I have found a community- and it started with being open on line about my atheism.. people like you help a lot as well Dan!

  • Chris

    Being a union member has A LOT of benefits. Being able to be yourself is a side one…

  • Jenn

    In the midst of a heated discussion about school-led prayer and tragic school shootings over the holidays, I informed my mother for the first time that I was agnostic.

    Her belief echoes many: if we still had school-led prayer, things like this would not happen. The fear of god and the threat of hell would prevent crime. I have a lot of problems with this line of thought but the one I focused on was that forcing faith (isn’t that an oxymoron?) would not prevent tragedy because the threat of hell only works when one truly believes. In actuality, by forcing religion upon people you’re only complicating the social order and giving people more to rebel against. It’s counter-productive.

    When I asked my mother why she would allow something as sacred as the god she believed in to be used as a fascist tool of social order she surprised me by commenting that *that’s* what religion *should be.*

    (And she wonders why I won’t attend services with her.)

    She refused to concede during the course of the conversation that as an agnostic, I actually seemed to have more respect for her faith than she did as a believer. I hope that once the heat of the discussion waned and she walked away later that she comes to realize that I am correct with that point. I do believe that atheism and agnosticism can and should become normalized. You’re absolutely right though, that silence doesn’t help that. If I had allowed some 17 year old cousin in a Slipknot t-shirt, mohawk, and nose piercing tell her that she was dumb for believing in god, she would find it all too easy to dismiss him as misguided. Me? Not so much. (One can hope, anyway.)

  • Ryan G

    Chris: that’s an interesting statement, because I view joining atheist organizations in the same way as joining a union. I prefer to keep my mouth shut, so I pay a firebrand to argue on my behalf.

  • Doctor Octavo

    I used to talk a lot about atheism to friends and family because after having been homeschooled and sent to a Christian charismatic university, I was pretty angry at religion.

    Right now, I just want to move on with life. Focusing on atheism just means that I continue to focus on Christianity. I guess I’m striving to be more silent on this topic. That said, I’m glad you and others are here deconstructing religion and explaining philosophy, especially since your blog is on Patheos. You’re in a great place to help seekers who are trapped in religious institutions and false belief systems.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    I live in Europe, in a different situation. Religion is really considered a personal matter. But my country, Portugal, is overwhelmingly Catholic, though people reject the hierarchy’s political commands and have voted for abortion and marriage equality. The Catholics are not especially bothersome by their evangelical efforts, which are almost null, but they have a way of installing themselves around the state and faking a legitimacy as if the country was a theocracy — and get extremely offended when they are called upon it. Minority protestant sects from the USA and Brazil are far more militant. Most people here, when you ask about their religion, say “I’ve got my own religion”, but don’t elaborate further.
    I tend not to bother people too much with my atheism. In everyday life religious ideas are not too common, beyond that everyday words like “God willing”, that mean nothing. Everybody around me knows I’m an Atheist. Sometimes I state my position, but it is not necessary that a discussion follows. If they want to pick a fight, I’m usually willing, if the opponent isn’t too stupid. In that case, I’ll respond only with humor. If some acquaintance seeks my agreement with a religious idea, I decline, saying simply “I’m not religious”.
    In my Facebook page and blog I publish frequently atheist articles and memes and discuss them, sometimes hard, but my personality does not conduct to wild displays of anger and the discussions usually stay civil, even with my nemesis, an Opus Day faithful and far right local municipal elect.
    So I’m not a silent atheist, but I’m not bothering people around with my ideas either. That’s my way.

  • Benjamin Porter

    I believe that religion is one of the most harmful things in society. I often get on and argue certain aspects of religion. I go as far as to call the ideas evil but i am not rude about it. In fact when someone is rude to me i ask them why. I say why are you mad i questioned an idea? Ideas may be your belief but they are just ideas and they are the only thing worth discussing. I do not cuss back i do not call them faggots as i have been called. I do not tell them they will burn. I simply continue to pose my quarries and points. Those who want to talk will those who don’t want to talk don’t have to I am atheist and anti theist, but i do it in a way that isn’t rude. And often in conversations even the Christian i am debating with will tell off the guy insulting me. You can find people who want to evaluate and discuss beliefs discuss what is good. Focus on these people not on being rude and spreading hate.