***Update***: There was another article about the North Carolina billboard in today’s LA Times. They are on a roll. Excellent media coverage!
Up to now, the 11-year-old Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics has been a pretty quiet bunch. But members thought it was time to raise their visibility and let Charlotte know that non-believers are also part of this community.
“We didn’t want anything aggressive,” says Molly, vice president of the group, which is part of a coalition that also put up billboards in five other N.C. cities. “We wanted a seat at the table. And we wanted people to know that you can be patriotic and not a Christian.”
What stands out in the article, though, is the fact that while the local group is growing fast, many of the group members — and officers — are afraid of being *too* public about their personal information:
Ask Molly or the others their last names or where they work, and there’s suddenly a palpable skittishness in the room.
These local atheists, it turns out, want a higher profile for their group, but not necessarily for themselves as individuals.
What are they afraid of?
Some say they fear the possibility of discrimination, that they’d be fired or ostracized if employers and co-workers knew they were atheist.
“I have to fear repercussions from people I work with,” says Rob, a member who will only say that he works in finance.
“Imagine being so different from everybody that when you reveal you’re an atheist, it’s like painting a big target on yourself,” [Jim] Craig says. “We hear: ‘You’re not welcome here’ and ‘We don’t want you here.'”
Adds 30-year-old Molly: “We atheists talk about coming out of the closet,” just like gays and lesbians.
I don’t know if this is just an issue with atheists in North Carolina, atheists in the South, or atheists in general. But it’s not the first time I’ve seen atheists prefer to remain anonymous. Hell, there are atheist bloggers I’ve been reading for years whose real names I still don’t know.
This is what we’re up against and this is why consciousness-raising campaigns are so important. People need to know we’re here, there are a lot of us, and there’s no reason to single us out or stigmatize us.
The more of us who are public with our atheism, the easier it will be for others to follow.
There’s another reason it’s so important to have local communities like this one and reporter Tim Funk nails it on the head:
Finding out about Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics was such a comfort for some of the members that they say the group has become more of a family to them than their real, often disapproving, families.
“It’s so nice to be able to say something without looking over your shoulder,” says Craig. “I love these people.”
This is one of the key things I’ve seen while I’ve worked with the Secular Student Alliance. Many of our affiliate groups’ members were able to talk to other atheists for the first time in their life as a result of the group on their campus. They didn’t have to censor themselves. They could talk about religion-as-mythology without fearing any repercussions. It’s an incredible environment to find yourself in, especially when you’re coming from a church or a family where religious dissent is not tolerated.
This article just shows that it doesn’t get much easier when you graduate — atheist adults, too, have a need to talk to each other and congregate. And even they fear getting caught by their families or bosses.
More power to the Charlotte group for all the attention they’ve received from the billboard campaign. Surely there are atheists in the area who had no idea the group existed before but know all about them now.
(Thanks to William for the link!)