Ask Richard: Lonely Atheist Needs Intelligent Conversations

Hi Richard,

Where does an atheist turn when she finds herself surrounded by people yet always alone? I live in a fairly conservative part of the country and while my friends know and accept that I’m an atheist, they view it as more of a novelty than anything — something they like to bring up when there are new people around, or if they have had a few drinks and feel like debating someone. Like it’s fun to wind me up and watch me go.

I try not to take the bait, but sometimes I can’t help myself. See, no one is interested in just talking to me and learning about my opinions or beliefs. They think that I turn too aggressive (who among us doesn’t come across that way?). I am a thirty-something mother of a beautiful little girl, I take good care of myself physically and lead an active lifestyle, I am a happy person, slow to anger, and while I am more liberal than most in my community, I don’t push my views on anyone else. I also don’t bring up my atheism unless someone asks (I learned that lesson very early on) and yet somehow, when the topic of religion comes up, I’m aggressive.

My desire to talk and learn and share my ideas about religion and atheism is very strong. However, since I have no one to talk with or share ideas with here, I find my only option is to turn to the internet. It’s been wonderful and I have learned so much (thanks Hemant, PZ, and Daniel to name a few), but still, it’s a little lonely. I wish there were a local atheist organization I could join, but the closest one is hundreds of miles away (although I’ve considered making the drive many times). I plan on going to the Atheist Convention in Burbank in October, but when I told my husband and friends about it, they laughed and kinda ribbed me like it was cute or something. I hate this.

I would appreciate any suggestions you might have. Thanks,

Lonely Atheist, Wyoming

Dear Lonely Atheist,

For people with above-average levels of intelligence, intellectual loneliness can be as painful as physical loneliness. They hunger for conversations beyond mundane topics, for dialogue with others who can challenge their minds and who can understand their complex ideas. While the internet has become a great source for nourishing that hunger, for some of those famished thinkers, blogs, instant messaging, and discussion forums just aren’t enough. They also need to sit and interact face-to-face with their cerebral compadres.

You have three wonderful qualities that are a disadvantage in the region where you live. You’re a woman, you’re smart, and you’re an atheist. To many in the local culture, a woman is automatically dismissible, a smart person is suspect, and an atheist is despicable. So a smart woman atheist is a serious triple threat to anyone with those prejudices. When you want to express yourself about things that are important to you, your friends and husband do not take you seriously because they know that they’re no match for you if they try. So they bait you, and trivialize you into a cute form of entertainment that they don’t have to address directly, something that can’t seriously threaten their world view. I think you take the bait because your brain is desperate for some kind of exercise and expression, but you’ll probably never get what you need at that cognitive dry well.

I’ll suggest some possible solutions further on, but first be sure you’re not partially buying into the characterization of yourself as “aggressive.” You may be unwittingly falling for a manipulation to encourage you to shut up. Are you actually aggressive? Do you yell, swear, or insult the person instead of simply stating your argument against their claim? Do you want to crush and humiliate them more than simply show that your viewpoint is valid? Just because you are earnest does not make you aggressive.

Religious people are accustomed to having it easy in their special status where social convention protects their beliefs from critical challenge. As a result, they’re spoiled and soft. So they will call any atheist who speaks up “aggressive” even if the atheist is very polite and merely being assertive or frank or worst of all, if she has a good argument. They can bellow all they want about damnation, condemn others as fools or evil doers, and intrude into places they have no right to be, yet never think of themselves as aggressive, but if someone respectfully says they don’t believe all that, they recoil from such “aggression” as if physically struck. Observe women who are assertive, articulate and outspoken, and you’ll see that “aggressive” is also often unfairly applied to them, basically to shut them up. Don’t fall for either of these. Remain cool, and politely call people on their attempts to squelch you with that trick.

Now for some suggestions, and I hope that the readers out there will chime in with their much more clever and knowledgeable offerings:

  • First, improve on two resources that you already have: your husband and the internet. If you haven’t yet, tell your husband clearly how important this need is to you. If he either can’t or won’t converse seriously with you about atheism and religion, then at the very least, he should not trivialize you or make fun of you, and he should not encourage your friends to do that. Even if he disagrees with your opinion, he should be respectful of you as a person, and not participate in belittling you.
  • Blogs and discussion boards are intellectually stimulating, but the best thing and the worst thing about them is that anybody can join in to the conversation. They are big, so you can once again feel lost in the crowd, even though this time you’re in a crowd of like-minded people. You also need a more intimate conversation. Find a handful of online friends and create a private discussion group site, just for the few of you, to talk privately about these issues and the more personal challenges that surround these issues, such as your frustration and hurt when your friends patronize and mock you. You and your more confidential online friends will begin to trust and care about each other, and the back-and-forth you can have with them can be very nurturing and healing.
  • In Wyoming, things that you need will often be far away, so you have to be self-reliant. If the closest atheist organization is too far away, start your own. You only need to find two or three other people with similar needs. Visit or contact that distant atheist group you mentioned and ask if they could help you find a few more people in your area. They may have met others who live closer to you than where they currently meet.
  • Consider becoming a student. You’re busy as a wife and mother, but taking one class in a community college can help feed that mental hunger, and help you find friends who enjoy such discussions. Take a course in philosophy, logic or comparative religion. Don’t worry about focusing on the grade. Unless you are planning a career, it doesn’t matter. Actually, any subject will do. You’ll be meeting smart people. Being older than most of the students at a college has some distinct advantages, and you’ll have as much to offer them as they have to offer you. See yourself in terms of possibilities rather than impossibilities.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. You’re a rose in the wilderness; you should not be left to fade and wither. You deserve resources where you will be valued and encouraged. Demand them, find them, and create them!

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    Richard, I think your point about LA’s being a woman is a good one. I live in Nebraska, and I have encountered the same obstacle because I am an intelligent female…and also an atheist. When people start in on me for being an “pushy bitch,” I leave. I don’t know how much of an option walking away is for LA, but it generally works for me. When people who disagree with me begin to actually get aggressive, I cut them off cold and spend my time elsewhere. It gets the point across—that you will not put up with their intolerant bullshit.

    Also, because you obviously have more than the necessary mental capacity to hold your end of the conversation, I would say don’t be afraid to make the person who is antagonizing you squirm. Turn the tables and see how they like it. Petty, yes, but it feels oh-so good.

    Becoming a student is a good suggestion, as well. Many of my college classes have facebook pages or community blogs where members of the class can contact each other.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    You can start your own blog or you-tube channel, post your thoughts, and nurture an intelligent group of people of which to interact. That is in addition to participating in other blogs like this one.

    You could start a book club where you read more meaty books. Perhaps take an ad out in the local paper or organize it through the library or bookstore in the nearest town.

    Or you can do what the rest of us do. Just get used to being alone. You are not alone in being alone. :)

  • CybrgnX

    How can you be an athiest in god’s country?? ;-}
    My wife is from Wyo and everyone there seems to call it that. But then they do so in Colorado too. I guess s/he/it can own more then one.
    Anyway talking to religious is hard as the stupid burns bright. But Approach the conversation not as an athiest but when something comes up use the ‘I’m lost in the wilderness and do not fully understand that point’ approach. Become the stealth athiest by asking the questions that make them sweat beneath the flames of stipidity. By asking questions you can make your statement without being the attacker.
    Never mind…I can’t do it either! But I knew someone who could and it was a brillant piece of art to see him do it.
    Good luck.

  • Don

    Well, I know how she feels. Just two nights ago I was with some close friends when one of them brought up religion (with a sideways glance at me). When somebody responded with “I pick and choose from the different religions”, I asked what made parts of each religion valid enough to choose and was immediately responded to by several people saying “Oh, here we go!” How are you supposed to have an intelligent conversation with those type of attitudes?

  • Michael R

    I was really moved by Lonely Atheist’s comments. She managed to sum up exactly how I feel every time I’m confronted with some ignorant religious bigot who treats me like a second class citizen while simutaneously boring me with invalid, tired non-arguments and outright incredulousness. The frustration I feel is deep, and I find myself feeling very, very lonely without an outlet for my mental energy. I do go to school. I am in a Master’s Program at Oklahoma University, but it’s 100% online and I have little opportunity to meet people due to living too far from the University.
    I sincerely hope Lonely Atheists everywhere can find others who share their views and find some relief and companionship. I’m going to take Richard’s advice and see if I can’t get something going around here. Surely there are others nearby who share my views. Thanks guys, for shining a little light in my direction. It was sorely needed.

    Michael

  • Tom

    Dear Lonely Atheist,

    Please come home to Massachusetts so we can befriend you.

    Best regards,
    Tom

  • bob

    I have been an atheist for 9 years, after being a Christian for 25 years. I have two close friends who are atheists, but they were never Christians, so we seldom discuss religion.
    My girlfriend of 4 years is a Christian, but we seldom discuss her religion.
    My only outlet is to read blogs and post the occasional comment. Very unsatisfying.
    I desire actual dialogue with people of faith. I am not sure why. Perhaps entertainment? De-evangelism? I am not sure. I guess I just would like to be able to propose a challenge to a few of these people who are so secure in their myths.
    But unfortunately, I have to be very careful. I am self employed, and the vast majority of my clients, probably 99%, are bible believers.
    So, I want desperately to talk to people, but I am terrified at the same time. Christians can be so incredibly spiteful.

  • Michael R

    This is definitely true. My boss is a Pentecost. He used to treat me like gold, until he found out I was an atheist. Now he won’t even look me in the eye. You’d think it would be obvious what a nasty little bunch of douche-baggery that is, but apparently the sky king promotes open discrimination. How silly of me to discard such an obviously morally superior belief system.

  • Erp

    She might try the Unitarian Universalists since some atheists congregate there. There seem to be 4 or 5 groups in Wyoming. Like the atheist group that is hundreds of miles away they may, even if not nearby, know of interested people in her area.

    Ethical Culture seems to have an Ethical Society without Walls for those who are isolated.

  • ChameleonDave

    Do what I did. Join Mensa. You may or may not find people you connect with, but give it a try.

    When it comes to being seen as aggressive, just go with your heart/gut. If you want to hold back, then fine. If you want to express yourself, then fine (if they are offended, it is their fault for having irrational beliefs).

    Be wary of people linking this to your sex, though. I can see that some people have already brought up the cliché of ‘people are threatened by intelligent women, and call them bitchy.’ Certain women use this as a get-out-of-jail-free card for their unpleasant personalities.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    “Certain women use this as a get-out-of-jail-free card for their unpleasant personalities.”

    That’s not fair. Just like Christians usually do not uderstand many of the obstacles that non-Christians encounter, men often don’t see the sexism that exists, too. It’s not something that I take lightly, and I am offended by this attitude, it implies that double standards don’t really exist and we’re just being silly women. You might consider rethinking your comment.

    I’m not saying your comment is wholly invalid, but generalizing women that way is as irritating as generalizing atheists.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    Also, we all know about how religion is often used to make women feel like second class citizens.

  • Chal

    The forum here is pretty awesome. Come on by some time. :)

  • Friday Planer

    I might also suggest Second Life. Many people will say that it is full of all the same things that afflict the rest of the internet. It’s a haven for predators, sexual deviants, and other miscreants. This is true, and normal online safety precautions apply. But there are also very intelligent people who can fulfill that yearning for intellectual stimulation.

    The biggest advantage is that it supplies a visually attractive space where you can converse with a small number of people in a comfortable atmosphere and in real time. This sense of immediacy and proximity is important, and can be emotionally rewarding. This is what is lacking in online forums such as this one. (Not that blog conversations are in any way inferior. Indeed, they are often superior is other ways.)

    I would be happy to meet this person in-world if she should decide to look me up. (I’m using my SL persona for this purpose.)

  • Matt

    Might I suggest a divorce?

    I don’t understand why someone would stay in a marriage with a spouse who belittles their beliefs.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pastornar Pastor Nar

    When we get past artificial barriers … we’re all human. Christians often feel the same lonliness – I know I have.

    Peace to you, Lonely Atheist in Wyoming.

  • UK Jeff

    You’ve made me realise how lucky I’ve been to exist in a country where it’s almost entirely the other way round. I wish I could wave a wand a bring you over here! Be strong, stay calm and rational. Remember there are lots more people around who think like you do but don’t have your confidence to even mention the a-word.

  • Zahada

    I too suffer from intellectual loneliness. It is a very difficult position to be in and I find that it affects other areas of my life. When I do not have that intellectual engagement with another person on a regular basis it makes me a more of a “loose cannon” when I am out in the world.

    I too have been accused of being too aggressive. I admit I can become passionate and energetic during a good discussion however I have never once belittled or personally attacked anyone. I have never set out to hurt anyone’s feelings.

    I disagree with Richard that reading blogs is helpful. It does the opposite for me. Just adds more fuel to the fire and actually it just ends up providing ALL kinds of topics and issues that I have NO ONE to talk to about.

    It sucks.

    Going to school is not a bad idea but for a single mother that is more challenging.

  • beijingrrl

    Think about starting a sci-fi book club. I’m in one with a group of moms, some of them atheist, some religious. We’ve lost a few religious folks because they really didn’t want to be challenged on some of the issues brought up. I have no idea why these people joined a discussion group in the first place.

    The rest of us enjoy thinking about and discussing the complex social issues which abound in good science fiction. We’ve discussed such things as gender issues, homosexuality, race, religion, immigrant rights and, the mother of all sci-fi book topics, what it means to be human.

    For some reason, if the people being discussed are aliens or living in the far-off future, people are much more comfortable discussing these issues.

  • zazazoom

    I am a lonely, female atheist in Wyoming also! Its nice to know another exists. I think we’re all so used to our opinions causing conflict that we generally keep quiet and thus never know how many others there are like us out there.

  • panoram

    Taking a college course is a great idea, as Richard suggested. Even if you already have a degree, signing up for a couple courses in philosophy, logic, or even psychology will give you a chance to have some highly intelligent and highly charged discussions (and also make some friends). Mmmm… brain food! :-)

  • Richard Wade

    I’ve copied this comment from another post that simply notifies people about the Ask Richard column being published in Humanist Network News, and I’m pasting it here so that Lonely in Wyoming is more likely to see it. Thanks, Khal82.

    Khal82 Says:
    August 6th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    The atheist in Wyoming letter posted in the Humanist Network News really struck a chord; I, too, live in a conservative place, and no one other than family knows I am an atheist. I know there would be a backlash with my job (I’m a kind, student- and learning-invested teacher) but I also think knowing of my leanings may help people realize that this perfectly nice, giving woman, has these qualities without theism, threat of hell – or they will just think I am confused, evil, quietly plotting subversion through critical thinking. Oh, and heaven help me if I must be “saved.”

    I would recommend to her joining the Freedom From Religion Foundation – you get a newspaper delivered to your door, and it’s terrific; it also advises of their conferences and of their activism. I feel very connected by all of my various memberships. Good luck to us all!

  • http://beefybass.wordpress.com Randy Rose

    To the Lonely Atheist: I lived in Cheyenne for many years, and I found that the best place for me to discuss my beliefs was at the local Unitarian Universalist church. There were more Humanists, Atheists, and Pagans at the church than all other religions combined! In fact, both the youth director and her husband, who coordinated the majority of church events, were atheists from Texas. I would suggest looking into a UU church. I know church is the last place you want to go, but it is a great community to get involved with… and they don’t care if you skip the services! Maybe you could just join a bookreading club there, or join in with the youth program. Heck, the church I went to had a Gay and Lesbian volleyball team that I played on (which, by the way, was “straight friendly”: no discrimination there!).

    Anyway, good luck and remember, you could always email me (xxRandyxx@gmail.com) or get various other pen pals around the country.

    -Randy

  • Ashley Moltzan

    hmmm I just discovered this question and I feel like an intellectual lonely atheist in Wyoming as well…my boyfriend and I often wish there was an atheist group we could interact with. I love this friendly atheist site. I try to check it every day.

  • Dennis teel

    i’m a christian and am close friends with a couple atheists as one of them is my nephew.we get along great.we just don’t get into a discussion or a debate.why should we have to?? he knows what i believe and i realise what he believes.chrisians that insist on being self righteous and mouthy toward someone for not believing the same way they do imo aren’t grounded in their belief.also,alot of people are just the type to argue anyway and the fact that the person’s a christian is just one more thing in their life that they can make into an argument..it’s not being a christian that makes them argue,it’s just their nature to argue.regarding relationships however,an atheist should definitely not date or otherwise get inolved in an intimate realtionship with a non-atheist.i think that only stands to reason. in my opinion an atheist might not believe the same way i do and so i’d have to consider that person as being wrong in his/her belief but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends outside of that realm.but then again,i have to admit that i’m not like other christians.while i’m considered charasmatic,i also don’t beleive that movies one watches or the music one listens to has any baring on whether or not one is a christian or going to heaven or not.this is in total opposition to most christian’s beliefs in god and heaven.ie,i’m not a legalist.as weird as this might sound,i’d bet money that the same christian that attempts to intimidate an atheist as mentioned in the article is also a legalistic person.that type of person is generally very self righteous.usually very intimidating toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same way that they do.unfortunatly there are way too many christians such as that in the world.they need to examine what their belief actually teaches much more thoroughly

  • Andy

    There are other atheists in Wyoming. There is a Unitarian Universalist Church in Cheyenne and fellowships in Casper and Laramie. While not all UU are atheists there are several and if they are not they know someone who is.


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