Opting Out

Humans are communal creatures, and we have been ever since we roamed the African savannas. Our greatest evolutionary advantage is our intelligence, but even the world’s greatest genius would probably find that to be little help if forced to survive in total isolation. Intelligence is inherently a social adaptation; it works best among groups that can share ideas, pass down knowledge, and brainstorm solutions to problems.

Since we have always lived in clans and tribes, it’s not surprising that the decisions of those around us exert such a potent pull on our own process of reasoning. As the Asch conformity experiment showed, humans are in a sense designed to go along with the group. When every member of your tribe is going one way, your brain is set up to believe they all probably know something you don’t. Conversely, the rare individuals who resist peer pressure and defy the group consensus are likely to attract angry reactions.

Nowhere is this peer pressure more evident than in religion. People often seem incredulous, even angry when an atheist answers the question “What religion are you?” with a cheery “None of the above, thanks” – as if the mere existence of atheism was a personal affront to believers.

I don’t find it at all surprising that a declaration of nonbelief is often met with such hostility. After all, religion is based on faith, not facts, and nothing is more threatening to a faith-based consensus than reasonable dissent. Even though evidence is lacking, believers can persuade themselves that they are in the right simply by banding together to reassure one another, only listening to each other’s supportive voices. But the mere existence of dissent threatens to undermine this herd mentality and bring unwelcome rays of reason spearing into the darkness of conformity. It forces them to think about the possibility of error, which they would otherwise not have had to confront, and realize just how fragile their groupthink consensus may be. It’s no surprise, then, that the less persuasive the evidence is, the shriller and more insistent the voices demanding conformity will always be.

But the angry demands to conform take their toll in the opposite direction as well. People naturally seek to be part of an in-group, a community of like-minded individuals where they can fit in and be welcomed. When the overwhelming majority of society is religious, that can be very difficult, and the fatigue of resisting can begin to take its toll. That’s why, if we’re not to abandon our principles, we need to hold firm in the face of peer pressure – even practice doing so. Like many other things, this is a skill that can be learned and reinforced through practice.

This is why I believe atheists should always speak their minds whenever it is practical. By learning to express our views, even on issues that aren’t necessarily important, we break down the harmful habit of self-censorship and make it more likely that we’ll speak up on the issues that truly matter.

Experiencing peer pressure, however, is by no means a problem limited to atheists. It’s only because we’re currently in the minority that we’re subjected to the brunt of it, but there’s no reason why we cannot form a community of freethinkers that give us greater license to freely speak our minds and choose as we wish. And peer pressure works both ways. Consider the experience of a Christian who went to see a showing of Brian Flemming’s documentary The God Who Wasn’t There:

after the movie, there was a short Q&A with the director. (the first showing was followed by a panel of theologians & scholars discussing and taking questions. but we just got the director). i was expecting a range of emotions from the people who stood up to ask questions, but was surprised when the overwhelming majority said: thank you for making this film.

one man was especially memorable. he was old, gray hair and shabby pants. he was sitting right in front of me. he stood up and said, “I want to thank you for making this film. I am a son of a missionary, was raised baptist, and it took me 60 years to break free.” More gratitude, more gushing.

another man made a very similar comment: “It’s taken me 70 years, but I can finally say: I do not believe in God.” This greeted with applause that pierced my heart and shook my insides.

i felt alone in that auditorium…close to tears and aching. ryan made the point that it was like being on the outside of an inside joke…which I imagine is how many non-christians have felt their whole lives- in a circle of believers using “churchy” terminology or when they visit a church, feeling like they don’t belong, that they don’t get the joke, or worse: that they are the joke.

we were the joke tonight.

The author of this piece perceptively notes that the feeling of exclusion and isolation she experienced at this gathering is very much like what many atheists feel on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that we should seek to become the majority so we can turn the tables and subject all theists to similar discrimination. But such social force, if it was at our disposal, could prove very useful in pressuring the truly intolerant and dangerous believers whose immoral views have persisted into modern times.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    It was fairly perceptive that the author of the quote actually figured out that it wasn’t only she that felt bad when others disagreed with her. However, the terminology that she used “gushing”, etc, shows that she still didn’t get it. Would she have used “gushing” if it were a church service and others were supportive of someone’s “testimony”?

  • Ric

    Great post. I enjoy reading this blog pretty much every day.

    The pressure of conformity is sopmething I teach in my Critical Thinking class. It is much easier NOT to think critically, since almost no one else does.

  • Valhar2000

    There was nothing perceptive about that author; it was just the same paranoid self-pitying rubbish that beleivers can’t seem to let go of. Rather than feeling peer pressure during the Q&A session, what she felt was scared by the lack of the ussual pro-religion peer pressure that she requires to feel safe. How insecure can you be?

    Then all the usual rubbish about better knowing the fact but not using them to decide (what the hell?), the fatc that she feels god in her heart and no-one can prove she does not, that she has hope and people who don’t beleive don’t. If she had that much hope, why would she feel attacked by being in the same room as people who do not share her delusions?

    Well, there you have the reason why I might be inclined to say beleivers are weak and stupid: if I were to generalize from her case, that would be the only conlusion possible.

  • Polly

    I am going to try to speak my opinions more often. I do censor myself a lot. It makes a big difference knowing someone in “real” life who thinks like me in this regard. So, I shouldn’t be hiding myself when there might be others who could benefit from a kindred mind.

    I think it was sensitive and perceptive of the writer to think about the atheist position in the midst of her own discomfort. I hope she takes something away from the experience that goes beyond the (for her) negativity of it.

    it was like hearing your closest friend be cruelly made fun of behind their back and you are too ashamed to say anything. all the darkened faces tossed back in laughter as they watch a mockery made of christ’s death. the defining moment of your heart’s life simplified to absurdity, to fluff, to jibberish. not just meaningless, but humorously so.

    – the quoted writer

    This is why I am careful in how I respond to Xians. I realize that for them, this is a much more personal matter than it is for me.

  • javaman

    Xian’s are also kept in line by spliting the world’s people into two groups, the other group being under the control of satan.If you dare to question and disagree with the leaders of your church you must be under the control of satan or his partner.These disfellowed ones are shunned and cutoff completely from the main group so as to serve as an example of what will happen to you.If you are a child or young teens this must be a very effective method of control that carrys over to adulthood. I addition to proudlly stating my atheism viewpoints to others, this also includes disbelieve in satan and hell, which also freaks xians out.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I haven’t read that Christian’s whole post, but frankly, I don’t think it was wrong of her to describe the reactions of other people as ‘gushing’ at all. Sure, she might not have called them ‘gushing’ if they were on her side, but we probably would call Christians ‘gushing’ in exactly that sense when they are not on our side. Fair’s fair. And this way, if a non-Christian describes Christians as ‘gushing’ to her, she’ll know exactly where they are coming from. Right?

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    …nothing is more threatening to a faith-based consensus than reasonable dissent.

    That reminds me of a poem called “Talk of Faith” by DH Lawrence,

    And people who talk about faith usually want to force somebody to agree with them, as if there were safety in numbers, even for faith.

    which summarizes pretty well the insecurity of faith and the resulting insatiable need to make everyone agree.

  • OMGF


    This is why I am careful in how I respond to Xians. I realize that for them, this is a much more personal matter than it is for me.

    Why would you say that? I don’t understand why you think beliefs are somehow more personal for theists than for atheists. Do you mean that because our beliefs are grounded in reason instead of emotion that we are not as invested in them in an emotional sense?

  • James Bradbury

    Polly, OMGF:

    I don’t think our beliefs are any less personal, but we might be less disturbed by them being questioned. I would guess at some combination of the following as reasons for this:
    - We’re unlikely to suffer ostracism for questioning or changing our beliefs.
    - We’re used to questioning beliefs, for many of us that’s how we arrived here.
    - Atheism is not brought into doubt by the mere existence of those who don’t agree.

  • Valhar2000

    I think Polly may have been talking about Jesus specifically. In that case, she is probably right; Jesus is, after all, their best friend (or so they say), whereas to us he is somebody else’s imaginary friend, so discussing his historicity or the faults in his alleged character is not quite as momentous for us as it is for them.

  • Polly

    OMGF & JB

    Yes, you got it. My nonbelief in deity doesn’t have the same emotional impact on me as having a best friend (or an invisible but present Father). I should have qualified my statement above. This is only one kind of believer. I shouldn’t have made it sound like ALL xians. When I sense that I’m arguing with someone who’s really emotionally invested (in any topic), I tread more carefully. I don’t think one can get through to the brain while the heart is in the way.

  • Polly


    You summarized my point, perfectly.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    All Christians are human beings, and deserving of simple courtesy for that reason alone (unless and until they themselves abandon said courtesy). And I think James is onto something when he points up our comfort with having our beliefs questioned. Perhaps if Christians had their beliefs questioned more, their comfort-level might also rise?

  • OMGF

    OK Polly, I gets it. Thanks for clarifying and for the others who pitched in.