Ask Richard: Should Unsuccessful Atheists Stay in the Closet?

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Should unsuccessful atheists stay in the closet?

Assuming that an atheist is unsuccessful in life, should that person refrain from being outspoken about his/her atheism?

I’ve recently heard multiple prominent atheists say that one way to improve the way in which theists view atheists is for the atheist to live a happy, successful life and point out to the theist that you’re doing it as an atheist.

If that is a good approach, and I agree that it is, then what should the less than successful, unhappy, depressed atheist do? Should he keep his atheism to himself?

Ted

Dear Ted,

I’m assuming that by “successful” you mainly mean financially successful. There are of course other ways that people might define a successful life, using family, happiness, status, position, influence, or many other criteria. It is a good goal to live a happy and successful life, whatever that might mean, but I think attaching that to the purpose of representing atheists well is a mistake, and I don’t think it works.

I think if atheists improve their reputation, it’s by their personal conduct.

The two main negative views that theists most often have toward atheists are 1) they think atheists are incorrect or foolish to not believe in gods, and 2) they think atheists are immoral. Let’s try this idea about impressing with success in the other direction, and look at theists who have material success:

Does the Giorgio Armani suit on a Christian make you wonder if there’s something valid in his beliefs about God, Jesus, and the creation of the Earth? If you see a Muslim step out of a brand new Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren, do you start reading the Koran looking for your chance for prosperity? If a Wiccan inherits her grandmother’s mansion and wins the lottery, do you start thinking she must have some special ability to change events? If a Jew has a great deal of status and influence over many people, does that suggest to you that his deity is real?

And what about their morality? Does their wealth or social position clearly prove that they are highly principled, moral, and ethical people with good character?

If material success by itself doesn’t convince an atheist that a theist’s beliefs and morals must be sound, then it probably won’t convince a theist the same thing about atheists. Prejudice is emotionally, not rationally based. If someone dislikes atheists, they might dislike rich atheists even more, and then turn around and have more contempt for poor atheists just because they’re poor. You’re not going to be able to gain their respect by being successful.

Question this idea about outing oneself for the good of the public image of atheists in general. People have heard me say this before, and they’ll probably hear me say it again: I don’t think anyone owes their outing to anyone else, or to any common cause. If coming out is in your own best self interest, if the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, then do it. Then if that happens to contribute to the overall acceptance and normalization of atheism, great, but it should be for your benefit first.

For instance, you ask what a less than successful, unhappy, depressed atheist should do. He should do whatever improves his financial situation, whatever increases his happiness, and whatever will relieve his depression, such as exercise, a better diet, and possibly counseling.

His decision to come out as an atheist depends on the particulars of his situation. If it will spoil his chances for getting a job or a promotion, or it will cost him the love of his family and friends, that’s not going to improve his success or happiness, and it certainly won’t help with his depression.

On the other hand, some atheists’ overall well being might improve when they come out. Perhaps their job is unaffected, maybe they have less stress from not having to lie or pretend, and hopefully they enjoy more honest and satisfying relationships. It all depends on each individual’s situation.

The point is that your economic or other material standing should not be a reason for or against coming out. Make that decision according to your own self interests.

If you choose to come out and you want to help improve the overall public image of atheists, you do not need to be rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful. It’s about your conduct. Simply be kind, fair, honest, and allow people their freedom. Treat people respectfully even if you don’t respect their beliefs. If you’re a happy person, that will come from inside of you. Happy or somber, be genuine. Don’t fake anything just to make an impression on others.

The whole point of leaving behind unfounded beliefs is to get away from falsehoods, façades, fantasy and fakery. If your circumstances allow you to be open about your atheism, be neither proud nor ashamed of your level of “success,” high or low. Just enjoy being able to be real.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • http://www.tos100.com TOS100

    Whenever I hear people speak of financial gain as the ONLY marker of success, I can’t help but think of a poem that we read in 3rd grade.

    Richard Cory

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    “Good Morning!” and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine — we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet in his head.

  • ML

    @ TOS100…wow…this was in 3rd grade?…what school did you go to?

  • phira

    This question reminds me of a very serious problem that many people with unprivileged identies face on a regular basis. When part of your identity makes you one of a group of people who are routinely discriminated against (if you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you’re queer or trans, if you’re not Christian, if you’re not middle/upper-class, etc.), to many people, you become representative of the entire group.

    I’m one of many women who feels pressured to be incredibly successful in my career in order to set the example that women are good at science. Of course, if I’m BAD at science, that doesn’t mean that all women are, but quite often, that assumption gets made subconsciously by a lot of people.

    So, should you keep your atheism a secret to keep people from assuming that it’s somehow connected to a lack of financial success? I mean, it’s up to you if you think it’ll affect your personal relationships, but on the whole, I think it’s a pretty stupid assumption. And if any prominent religious person ever points to you and tells a crowd of people that your atheism is why you’re unsuccessful, you’ll have a ton of other atheists standing up and pointing out that 1) correlation does not equal causation, and 2) one person is not an adequate sample size :-p

  • Dalilonna

    Wow, TOS100!

    Where did you go to school? I certainly don’t remember anything that thought-provoking from grade school!

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    My brother, a bizarre sort of theist (he attended a “harmonic convergence” event once, for example), wrote an article about how drug addicts could find meaning in life. His article said that the nihilism of atheism was negative and that addicts should adopt some belief system to help them recover. I think he’s crazy and he thinks I’m crazy. But then again, I’m the one who’s suffered from major clinical depression, agoraphobia, and social phobia. So I don’t feel like much of a poster child for atheism. Maybe he’s right–if I could believe in all that crap, I might be happier. But I can’t. Does atheism make me less happy than the average person? Well, it excludes me from the group I grew up in, the church. But this is who I am.

  • pansies4me

    “or it will cost him the love of his family and friends”

    I have come out to one friend and several family members, and so far the response hasn’t been earth- shattering or destroyed any relationships. I do really wonder, though, if someone withholds love because you come out to them as an atheist if they ever really loved you at all. I have some people that I wonder seriously to myself, “Would they love me if they knew this about me?”. It makes me sad and scared because I would not take it well.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  • Mel

    Success is relative, as Richard pointed out. Utilizing “success” as a qualifier or recruitment tool for atheism or deism is just wrong.

    Personally, I was a member of the church when I was too young to consider myself a contributor to society. I think there are so many lies, white lies, half truths, etc that we face on a daily basis, that being true to my atheism makes me a better individual and therefore, successful in one aspect of my life.

    I hate the idea of having to hide who you are to keep a friend or even worse, keep your job. If a person withholds love and support, they weren’t worth having in your life in the first place. Now, we all have to eat and pay bills, that’s a different story and to each their own.

    In the end, when I have money and when I don’t, I stick to my lack-of-belief :)

  • pansies4me

    Jude,
    I’m sorry to hear you suffer from some mental maladies. I have anxiety and a mild form of bipolar depression called Bipolar II. I have often wondered myself if I would be happier if I believed in God (any god), and like you I really just can’t. I’m sometimes jealous of religious family I know who seem to float on a cloud because they love Jesus. But then again, maybe they’re “blessed” with a sunny disposition and a brain with all of its chemicals in good order. :) I think mental crap makes you blame yourself for your afflictions, so it’s particularly hard to get relief sometimes, at least for me. My crazy meds help, but there’s no happy pill out there that I’ve ever come across.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    i confess to being often confused by the emerging “coming out” meme that seems to be discussed with increasing frequency on atheist blogs. for people who are NOT in the business of promoting free thought/atheism/humanism in media, politics and society, my question is: to whom are you “coming out?” the only reason people know or care (or don’t) about my atheism is because i am a writer and i make it a major point in my work, for analytical or polemical reasons. nobody asks me when i’m on the bus or in a store, “so, what religion are you?”

    i know there are dysfunctional families out there and that sometimes people are in the closet as a result of that. i know that if one has a job associated with a religious organization, one might be asked for a “statement of faith” or some such as a condition of employment. but in most situations, is it really that important, or imperative, that people know one’s faith? if so, why?

    this is where the “atheist is the new gay” meme fails, imho. it’s still perfectly legal to fire queers just for being queer. but an atheist is protected rather specifically under the Constitution. there have even been successful legal challenges by differently- or non-believing folks who work for specifically denominational religious organizations like the Catholic church, when they were discriminated against or fired by that type of organization for lack of “proper” belief.

    if this person is talking about religious friends they fear they’ll lose or lose respect, well. why would you want friends like that in the first place? i am harsh on belief but i count many believers my friends and only gently mock them, and only sometimes. we’ve learned to get along and agree to disagree. that’s what real friendship means.

    if the community in which you live is so constipated by belief, and you find yourself depressed and unsuccessful there, my advice is: move. i know how hard it is to be poor, i know what it is to be depressed. but i’m telling you, staying in a situation in which those things are chronic problems in your life makes no sense. there are still jobs in major american cities; cheap housing situations (while perhaps not in the fashionable neighborhoods) and plenty of communities who don’t define themselves by belief. find a place like that, and start over. only the street freaks are publicly vocal about religion in big cities, and they can’t oppress you unless it’s by standing in your way while you’re trying to catch the bus.

    and to the point of Richard’s advice: atheism isn’t anything but atheism. some of us are rich, some poor, some brown, some pink, some str8, some queer. i don’t make any generalizations about any atheist i meet or speak with beyond “so, you’re an atheist. cool!”

  • All_no-ing

    As an atheist, you’re successful if you don’t eat babies…

  • http://skepticat.blogspot.com/ Skepticat

    I’m financially unsuccessful and have bipolar disorder. Most people in my social circle know I’m an atheist. If any of them think my troubles are due to my lack of belief, they’ve not said so.

    And even if they did, I wouldn’t care. It’s not my job to be the poster girl for atheism. It’s my job to live this one life to the best of my ability. I don’t waste my time worrying if I’m a good enough atheist. I spend my time trying to stay well and making positive changes in my life.

    But what better advertisement for atheism could there be other than that it’s open to the entire human race, regardless of condition, and that atheists struggle with their humanity just like everyone else?

  • http://www.youtube.com/aajoeyjo Joe Zamecki

    Whenever a Christian implies that financial success leads to overall happiness, we should remind them that Jesus had no love for wealthy people.

    “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a wealthy person to enter Heaven.”

    I made a video about that attitude, and the irony of megachurches filling up every Sunday with wealthy people, who go there to worship a pauper.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTmkl7qvpoc

    Rich or poor, I’m just happy being free. :o )

  • Claudia

    his is where the “atheist is the new gay” meme fails, imho. it’s still perfectly legal to fire queers just for being queer. but an atheist is protected rather specifically under the Constitution.

    This is of course true and it has real consequences, but I think the fact remains that many of the consequences for “coming out” as atheist can be quite similar. People can be fired and as long as the boss isn’t so stupid as to come out and say that it was for religion, he/she can discriminate in a way so you know it but can’t ever prove it. Being shunned by friends and family likewise is another shared property.

    Which isn’t to say that both communities face equal hardship. Guaranteed equal treatment under the law cannot be underestimated. Also, atheism is not (for the moment) such a culture war flashpoint that young atheists have to bear bullying, beatings, and see themselves called immoral and “sick” day in and day out. Clearly the queer community has to deal with a lot more crap.

    I don’t think we have a right to ask anyone to “stay in the closet”. Everyone has a right to their identity. The only kind of atheist that is “bad” as far as I’m concerned are atheists who happen to be bad people. An unethical douchebag is certainly not someone I want representing my community. However we can’t request they stay closeted, we merely have to show, through our actions, that they aren’t representative.

  • Zoo

    Jude, pansies4me

    I also have such problems (social phobia, related depression), and I KNOW believing that stuff wouldn’t make me happier — I’m actually happier since I realized I don’t believe. I have a cat who’s done more for me in the last couple years than decades of being raised in church have.

  • Steve
  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Churches like to minister to the down and out (for example, people in assisted living adult homes) because it is believed (by the religious) that religion can help these less fortunate people. In the more severe cases, the churches believe that religion is the only thing that some people have to cling to. I’ve been to churches where they invite the local assisted living people to a Thanksgiving feast but before they let anyone eat, they have to sit through a sermon all about Jesus and being saved. I’ve also seen the attitude expressed by religious people that it is easy to be an atheist if you are successful and have things going your way, but just wait until things don’t go your way… then you will need God.

    I think it is important to challenge the notion that you really need God if things are not going your way. For atheism to become really mainstream, people will have to know that it is a valid option no matter what life throws at you. As for whether any particular person should “come out”, that depends on the situation on the ground.

  • Deanna

    I don’t understand the whole “coming out” thing. Coming out of what? And why would anyone think that Christians don’t have worldy problems? We do. We just have a different way of dealing with them. We ask for Help. It doesn’t always come in the form we think we need, but it comes. To the world we often look like we are very unsuccessful, but in our hearts we know differently.

  • Claudia

    I don’t understand the whole “coming out” thing. Coming out of what?

    For many atheists, recognizing to others that they are nonbelievers is a huge decision. While doubtlessly many religious families are lovely and supportive, many are not. People face ostracism, bullying, divorce, cutting off of college funds, the works, when coming out as atheist in some cases. So many atheists live in a religious “closet” (obviously modelled on the gay closet) pretending to believe to avoid the consequences of coming out.
    Coming out has come to signify a very important thing in our community and again the reasons mirror those of the GLBT movement. On the one hand coming out enables you to live freely and honestly in accordance with your beliefs. On the other hand it enables the religious to realize that atheists aren’t some dark immoral bogeyman, but regular people who you know and interact with all the time. Bigotry is much harder to sustain with living, breathing examples that refute it.

    And why would anyone think that Christians don’t have worldy problems?

    Err, who ever has claimed Christians don’t have “worldly problems”. Hell, if Christians never had wordly problems that would actually be a nice argument in favor of your religion ;-)

    We do. We just have a different way of dealing with them. We ask for Help.

    We atheists deal with it in the exact same manner. We also ask for help. We just do it to sources that have demonstrably shown they can be counted on to come through; family, friends, neighbors, doctors, police officers, firefighters, teachers etc.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    I think there are two related stereotypes about “successful” and “unsuccessful” atheists, as far as public image goes.

    Stereotype #1 holds that all atheists are depressed, bitter, and cynical, and that our atheism has been caused by a series of unhappy events in our lives. These are the “unsuccessful” atheists. Of course, our atheism almost certainly has nothing to do with financial, medical or other difficulties, but that doesn’t stop theists from believing that we would be happier if we just turned to their preferred deity.

    Stereotype #2 asserts that happy atheists are only happy if life is going smoothly for us. These are the “successful” atheists who happen to have good health and good relationships with family and friends. However, as soon as things get tough, theists believe that we’ll be unable to deal with life’s difficulties on our own. It all goes back to their belief that no one can be truly happy or fulfilled without their deity.

    Whichever type of atheist we are, we’re caught in a bind because many theists don’t really want to understand the truth about our lives, good or bad. For these people, an “unsuccessful” atheist is confirmation of their entrenched bias, and a “successful” one is merely biding time until (they believe) we’ll be begging for their god at the first hint of serious trouble.

  • Deanna

    It’s interesting that athiests think that Christians spend a lot of time and energy thinking about them and having stereotypes about them. I am deeply trenched in a church and surrounded by theists and we don’t ever discuss athiests. Our take is…you believe or you don’t. That’s between you and God. I will say that I have wondered, to use an analogy, how you know that Bob doesn’t live across the street when you’ve never gone over there and knocked on the door.

  • Deanna

    Also, how do you know you wouldn’t be happier if you were close to God? Ever tried it? To know for sure wouldn’t you have to try life both ways?

  • Heidi

    Is it just me, or do we need an Atheists with Mental Illness support group around here? I’m also social phobic and depressed. Granted, we social phobic people aren’t the most likely to go to any kind of meetings…

    As far as my lack of belief, I’m pretty happy about that. I wouldn’t want to be able to believe nonsense, or even to pretend that I do. I’d rather have reality than blissful ignorance.

    I read Richard Cory in an AP English class in high school. Third grade, TOS? Damn. I have to admit, I prefer the song version (Simon & Garfunkel or Paul McCartney & Wings).

  • Heidi

    @Deanna: Because there are no gods. I wouldn’t be happy to be close to leprechauns, either. Pretty sure I don’t need to try out the theory.

  • Steve

    @Deanna

    1.) Many atheists come from religious backgrounds and consciously moved away from them. Either because they no longer believed the theology or because they suffered some form of mental abuse with indoctrination and religious education. There are many other reasons and combinations thereof. But they know what religion feels like and want no part of it

    2.) No matter the reason people are atheists, it would be very, very hard to move back to a believe in a god(s). That lack of belief is rooted in certain thought processes and not just a rejection of a certain way of a life. We tend to rely on logic and reason. And at a certain point that makes having faith in supernatural things impossible. There can be no “trying out” religion from that point on.

  • pansies4me

    Deanna,

    I think you will find that most of us were at one time believers, usually Christian, so you can’t say we haven’t tried both ways. Have you ever considered the possibility that you are mistaken in your belief?

    Sorry, but the “Bob” analogy is silly. I can go knock on the door to verify if Bob lives there. If a physical being named Bob lives there I’ll find him. No matter what your personal experience feels like to you, it is not sufficient evidence for me. You can’t see your god, and neither can I. I don’t know if you are a newcomer here – if so, howdy and welcome. I think you should know that I and probably every atheist here has heard every argument for theism that you could possibly think of and rejected all of them. We’re generally a very thoughtful bunch, as I’m sure you are.

    I don’t think that theists spend all their time thinking about atheists, because we are invisible unless we speak up. That’s the problem. When we do speak up, some theists go ape shit at the mere suggestion that we exist. (see the billboard and bus sign stories) We are tolerated as long as we don’t express our views.

    I have personal problems that I find to be terribly difficult at times, but I know that my family and friends will help me. I don’t lean on your god or any other god because I would be grasping at straws. I need real arms to hold me, real kisses on the cheek, and real hands to wipe away my tears.

  • pansies4me

    Heidi,

    I’m not social phobic, but I probably wouldn’t make a meeting because I don’t drive on the expressway. I didn’t drive anywhere until my 30′s because I had a phobia. With the help of my doctor I was able to partially overcome my phobia. I take the back roads that I’m comfortable with. Anxiety in any form sucks!

    At any rate, I surely didn’t pray for help, and I was able to achieve success through the wonders of science. As my doc says, “Better living through chemistry!” :D

  • Heidi

    Aw, yeah I can understand that. I get panic attacks. Not fun. I love me some chemicals, though. LOL. Science FTW! I can see science saving bodies, minds and lives. Gods, not so much.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Deanna,

    It’s interesting that athiests think that Christians spend a lot of time and energy thinking about them and having stereotypes about them.

    There are a lot of theists (not just Christians, by the way) who do have a whole host of stereotypes about atheists. Hang out here long enough and you’ll come across plenty of them.

    I am deeply trenched in a church and surrounded by theists and we don’t ever discuss athiests. Our take is…you believe or you don’t.

    That’s nice, but it seems to be pretty rare. I have nothing against people minding their own business, but unfortunately most conservative and moderate churches wish to convert everyone to their point of view and do invest a great deal of time, effort and money evangelizing and proselytizing to atheists and other non-Christians. Am I to understand that your church does none of that? That it doesn’t promote the falsehood that the only way to have a good and happy life is to believe in your deity?

    That’s between you and God. I will say that I have wondered, to use an analogy, how you know that Bob doesn’t live across the street when you’ve never gone over there and knocked on the door.

    The thing you should understand about atheists is that we don’t believe in any gods, not just your god in particular. Your analogy doesn’t make much sense to me. What door? Your deity appears to be invisible and undetectable. How am I supposed to find a door to knock on if it’s invisible, and how am I supposed to tell if a god answers it? Furthermore, why should I think your god would answer the door? Maybe a goddess would. Maybe a bunch of different gods would. There’s no reason to think one particular deity is more likely to exist than any other.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Deanna,
    I appreciate your questions because you seem to be sincerely wanting to understand. I would like to respectfully help you to understand me and possibly other atheists.

    You said,

    It’s interesting that athiests think that Christians spend a lot of time and energy thinking about them and having stereotypes about them.

    This is an example of how a stereotype starts and keeps going. “Atheists” don’t think that. Some atheists might think that, but when you just say “atheists think that,” the implied meaning, “they all think that” gets started. If you were to repeat that to a theist, he or she might repeat it, and embellish it, and quickly we have yet another negative stereotype that is only supported by its repetition.

    You got the impression that you were expressing from a very pre-selected group of atheists. They are a few who are commenting on a blog post that is partly about stereotypes. They are not (all) “atheists.” They’re a teeny weeny fraction, and they’re probably only thinking about Christians’ stereotypes while they’re reading this post. It’s a very common and very human mistake anyone can make, to assume that whatever example of a category we’re looking at represents the whole group.

    So if I were to overhear three Christians complaining about atheists, it would not be fair or correct for me to then say “It’s interesting that Christians spend a lot of time and energy complaining about atheists,” because I would be taking a sample of three to imply a characterization of the whole category, and I would be taking a sample of a few minutes of their time to characterize the bulk of their time.

    Actually, we know that most Christians don’t spend much if any time being concerned with us. Very few realize that they know any atheists. So if they have any thoughts about us, they are generally making assumptions based on not knowing. We only start talking about their misconceptions or stereotypes when some tell us to our faces, or they tell the media when they’re interviewed on the street, or they’re a pundit who makes a living spreading such falsehoods. Then we complain a lot.

    I very much appreciate your and your friends’ attitude that whether or not people believe is between them and God. If that were true of all Christians, then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time keeping teacher-led prayer out of public schools, objecting to Christian-only-and-nothing-else prayers at city council meetings, fighting religious-based laws limiting the freedom of consenting adults to love each other, defending ourselves from slander when we simply announce to each other that we’re here in town, and many, many other problems caused by a few very active Christians who don’t see fit to leave other’s beliefs up to them and God.

    You said,

    I will say that I have wondered, to use an analogy, how you know that Bob doesn’t live across the street when you’ve never gone over there and knocked on the door.

    Assuming your analogy is about believing in God, I’ll use it to explain my point of view.

    There is a vacant lot across the street from where I live. My next door neighbor comes over and tells me that Bob lives over there in a wonderful house, and he’s really a great guy, and I should get to know him.

    I politely tell my next door neighbor that all I see is a vacant lot. He gives me a book about Bob and I read it. I look at the book and look at the vacant lot, and no matter how hard I try I don’t see Bob or his house. I even walk around that empty lot, but there’s nothing but dust and weeds.

    My next door neighbor says that I won’t see the house until I believe it’s there. That is backwards to the basic way that I think. For me, seeing is believing. He’s telling me that believing is seeing. That’s a little scary to me because I know of some people in mental hospitals who see what they believe rather than believe what they see. Nevertheless, I consider it and try to believe it first. But sorry, my neurons simply will not fire in reverse.

    I remain open to evidence of Bob and his house across the street if it ever shows up, but without evidence, my default setting is to refrain from assuming he’s there, just as I would if my neighbor had insisted that instead of Bob, there were leprechauns living across the street.

    It’s not for lack of trying. It’s for lack of what I need. Some people believe without any evidence at all. Some people are simply not capable of that.

    I hope this helps you to understand at least my experiences and those of atheists with a similar background. If you continue your very commendable open-hearted dialogue with us, you will also meet atheists here who fully, deeply and sincerely believed in Bob and his house, but later came to see that there’s just an empty lot.

  • Demonhype

    @pansies4me:

    “I don’t think that theists spend all their time thinking about atheists, because we are invisible unless we speak up. That’s the problem. When we do speak up, some theists go ape shit at the mere suggestion that we exist. (see the billboard and bus sign stories) We are tolerated as long as we don’t express our views. “

    I was going to respond to chicagodyke’s “why is it so important to many of you to be visible with your atheism, what good do you get out of it?” comment. This is a great starting point. Thanks!

    Except I wouldn’t say we are tolerated as long as we don’t express our views, because requiring that opposing views remain invisible is the definition of intolerance. Unless you were being sarcastic–damn internet medium, depriving us of that crucial tone-of-voice communication tool!

    The ape-shit reaction we get when religious people are made aware of our existence–either by a billboard or by a single person who refuses to pray with them–is the reason it’s important to be visible. Our invisibility is what makes the abject discrimination possible. While we remain silent, the religious leaders do not, and in our silence they demonize us to the point where we must be afraid to have our atheism even suspected, much less confirmed, to other people, and we must feel obliged to play along and feign faith to avoid retaliation.

    I’m not going to get upset if someone doesn’t want to “come out” and be a visible open atheist, but please don’t act like atheists to whom open atheism is important are some kind of self-aggrandizing rabble-rousing attention whores. There are very serious social repercussions for being an invisible, demonized minority and great advantages to making your group visible–mainly, that as atheists become more visible, it becomes harder for religious leaders to demonize us in the minds of their followers and to justify systematic discrimination, and it weakens their stranglehold on the political process by which religious leaders enforce their power over others. And as many religious people realize that people they know and respect are atheists and have been for years, they become more accepting of the humanity of atheists and the usual talking points begin to lose their hold. Not that it’s going to happen tomorrow, but in time.

    But only if atheists are visible and recognized! The only reason we’ve become demons is our silence, and the only reason we’re making strides of equality is with our unified voice!

    As for what Anna said about the 2 stereotypes believers hold of atheists and how they really don’t want to understand atheists–I couldn’t agree more! But it’s harder for them when it’s someone they know well. My mom was like that before I “came out”. Sure, atheists can be…you know, okay…never as good as people who have faith, of course….but they’ll find they need God in their lives someday….especially since they’re all such empty and arrogant people with nothing to fill up their lives…except for the few who are pretty nice people, but they’ll come on hard times one day and need God too.

    It was harder for her to maintain that when her own daughter became open with her atheism, just as for many Christians it’s harder to maintain the vile evil of homosexuals once their own kid come out as gay. It’s much easier to simply dismiss the views of a guy in the paper or a guy on TV or a guy on the street, or some guy at work, but it’s much harder to dismiss it when someone close to you expresses how they really feel–even if you really really want to, and don’t think my mom didn’t want to! :) When they see someone close to them and all the things they go through over the years, yet they never “turn to God” in their hours of need, it’s hard for them to maintain those stereotypes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    Just enjoy being able to be real.

    Ramen, brother! Ramen. Good advice all around, Richard.

    Here’s the thing. I’m very outspoken and, er, passionate. I shoot from the hip and take no prisioners. I say what I think, including being an out Atheist. I am not a financial success and it pisses me off when people measure success by money. Rich or poor, you’re not a success unless you’ve made your peace with life and live it fully.

    Since I’m outspoken, people tend to run either hot or cold with me. Few who know me are in between. They either love me or they hate me. I’m fine with this because I am admired or rejected for what I am.

    But even those who hate me tend to be impressed with the way I live life honestly and with scruplous morals. I’m admired by many for protecting my daughter from her abusive father and that has caused me to be greatly poorer (thousands of dollars a year poorer) for the rest of my life. Even those who are angered by my outspoken disregard for god. Others can’t get past that or the single mother thing. I’ve actually had one coworker for years who’d say wouldn’t you take him back if he changed. Um, that’s just freaking nuts. Take someone back if he came back and claimed to no longer be a perv? You kidding me? Okay, so she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box.

    Here’s the thing. I’ve been an out Atheist for 24 years and was an out Agnostic for four years before that (before my daughter was born). I’ve been demonstrably happy but human. I err. We all fuck up big time as I did when I married that wolf in sheep’s clothing and had a baby with him. Sometimes I’m mistaken for a pestimist because I say so when I see something wrong but the truth is I’m really an optimist who believes what’s wrong can be changed and life is really good overall. If I didn’t think things could be changed for the better, why would I bother speaking up when they’re wrong?

    I’ve had Christians who have made me feel like I shouldn’t have come out but that feeling passes. For every one of them who has crossed my life, I probably have 10 others who have been given an example that you can be strong and moral without god. I don’t think even those who have vehemently hated me have ever mistaken me for weak and most have grudingly allowed that I work hard, do a good job and live a moral life.

    So, no, I’m not a financial success. Far from it. I’m still, at 52, living in cheap apartments. But I’m not often called a loser and the reason is because I obviously live life on my terms even if you hate me for it. I’m happier and stronger than average. And speak openly when I hear someone make some silly claim like Christians make better parents (ask my daughter, she’ll tell you) or Atheists lie. I revere truth to a fault; that’s why I rub many the wrong way.

    So am I a success? I think so. I’m poor but I’m successful in ways some of the rich never will be. I haven’t compromised my principals for the sake of a bank account or a house on the hill. I didn’t look the other way while my daughter was abused because it would have profited me to do so. Love me or hate me, I fuck with that stereotype of Atheists just by being out. So even the ones who hate me because they have the Christian ideals of women being submissive to men and a single mother drives them buggy or because I spit in the eye of faith and never back up are, on some level, mentally challenged to deal with it.

    I am proud to be out. I am proud that credit for being strong doesn’t go to god. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked where did I get my strength, even if it were just those who ask where I get it without god, I would be rich even though I’ve answered forthrightly from knowing and doing what’s right, not being afraid to determine that for myself and holding true to it. From looking for the truth in everything and not letting others tell me what to be or not to be.

    I was sucidal when I was Christian. When I lost faith, reality made me strong. I have learned how much I can handle and, frankly, that is anything that comes my way.

    Being out has made all the difference in my life but only you can decide if it is right for you and if you are strong enough. Because you will have to stand up and defend what you are if you are out. Be prepared.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    TOS100, I love that poem!

    Have you ever heard the Simon and Garfunkel version?

  • prospera

    I politely tell my next door neighbor that all I see is a vacant lot. He gives me a book about Bob and I read it. I look at the book and look at the vacant lot, and no matter how hard I try I don’t see Bob or his house. I even walk around that empty lot, but there’s nothing but dust and weeds.

    and Richard… Bob is your father. :D

  • Deanna

    First of all, I want to thank you for your kindness. I am from the enemy camp and you all have been so generous to welcome me, answer my questions and kindly argue your points, which I respect, by the way. My final argument is this…you all DO believe in something you can’t see. You believe in love because you have experienced it. Well, my friends, God is love and that is all He is. He’s in the hand that wipes away your tears, the arms that are around you in diffictult times, the cat that gives you more than the church did. He knows that you will only accept love from what you can physically see, touch and hear so that is how He reaches you. All He wants to do and can do is love because that is what He is and nothing else. So, all I can wish for you is that you find what I found in that empty lot. I found Love there. May your lives be filled with it. And remember, Love loves you whether you believe in Him…or not.

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you, Deanna. You are very gracious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    Excuse me, Deanna, but don’t you think that the credit for that love should go to those who are giving it to you? You’re rather both cheapening it and disrespecting those who wipe away your tears, put their arms around you and, yes, even the cat who has been a steadfast friend to you because you feed and pamper it to give the credit to your invisible, imaginary friend instead of them.

    That was a really irritating thing to say and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to lessen the love people naturally have for one another. There is no god in love. There is give and take in love and survival instincts. Not your freaking sky daddy. What a pity you can’t love without crediting it to him.

  • Steve

    And remember, Love loves you whether you believe in Him…or not.

    Actually, your holy book says that were are condemned to eternal torture for not believing. Or merely death, depending on the quote in question.

    You may not believe that, but if you have moved away from such rigid doctrine to merely “god is love”, you have already left much of mainstream Christian theology behind. It’s not much different from any other kind of general, undefined spirituality.

  • pansies4me

    @Demonhype

    Thank you for putting a finer point on what I was trying to say. :)

    As an aside, is it just me who finds the whole idea of “tolerance” to be lacking? It implies that one party puts up with another party merely because they can’t kill them or something (hyperbole, I know). I wish it was more like acceptance, or respect, or… I can’t quite put my finger on the the right adjective.

  • dunefish

    Another depressed unsuccessful atheist here. And the embarrassing thing is that I actually came to my atheism because of bad events in my life. I hated god for all the terrible things he had done to me even though I still believed in him. I even considered myself a satanist for some time and regularly told “blasphemy prayers” in which I just called him every bad name I could imagine, desecrated crucifixes and did the things forbidden in the bible to piss him off. At the same time I was very afraid because I knew I was going to hell now, so I started to wish there was no god. And as I was reading all the atheist arguments to rationalize my wishful thinking, I got it. I understood that by such an accident I have actually stumbled upon the truth.
    My family thinks that my mental illness stuff is actually a demon possession and don’t even take me seriously because of it. And I can’t even be honest with some atheists about my deconversion story… because well, it’s such a shame to exactly reflect the worst stereotypes they are fighting against.

  • Nicole

    Stereotype #1 holds that all atheists are depressed, bitter, and cynical, and that our atheism has been caused by a series of unhappy events in our lives. These are the “unsuccessful” atheists. Of course, our atheism almost certainly has nothing to do with financial, medical or other difficulties, but that doesn’t stop theists from believing that we would be happier if we just turned to their preferred deity.

    ^ I have this problem, very very badly, at work. My two direct coworkers are both religious (one is VERY religious and murmurs prayers to herself at her desk all day, no kidding).

    I am a pretty happy person on the whole. I get moody (birth control!) and stressed but I don’t have anything to complain about.

    But these two women for reasons totally unrelated to their religion DRIVE ME INSANE and I am completely miserable at work. I have worked with people I didn’t get along with but this really takes the cake. And so my patience is tried and I get snappish despite my best efforts, and I’m withdrawn and I know that they both think I’m cynical and angry all the time. I want to say, no: just at you.

    Sometimes they frustrate me so badly I just put my head on my desk and cry soundlessly.

    BUT

    I KNOW that they both think, especially the very religious one, that my misery MUST be the result of my lack of religion. I was almost directly told as much on one occasion and hints are frequently dropped. I know that there have been very broad hints made when I was interrupted during one of my mute weeping sessions.

    Which makes me feel bad. How am I supposed to tell these women “atheists aren’t all bitter jerks dammit” if *I AM A BITTER JERK.* This is exacerbated by the fact that they are the office gossips so I have acquired, according to my supervisor, an undeserved reputation for bitchiness.

    So on that measure of success, I totally get where the writer is coming from. It’s hard to feel torn between “I shouldn’t have to act a certain way because I’m an atheist and that just makes us another religion” and “I don’t want people to think atheists are jerks because I am a jerk.”

    And I still haven’t found a good solution for that problem.

  • Deanna

    @ Donna…Love isn’t about taking credit or giving credit. It stands alone. Though I give all credit to anyone willing to give it or receive it. The willingness is the most difficult task.
    @ Nicole…there are jerks who believe in God (I know a few…and confess that I have been one myself!) Don’t be so hard on yourself just be who you want to be. Something I try to remind myself frequently of is…kindness doesn’t cost me anything. Being a jerk causes alot of unnecessary guilt. Peace to you!

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @Deanna,

    I find your definition of God as Love to be quite benign and well… nice.

    It isn’t Christian theology, though, as I understand Christian theology. I understand Christian theology as positing that all people are born fallen (in sin) and only accumulate more sin throughout life. As sinful creatures, we are destined to be forever separated from God (after we die) unless we repent and accept Jesus (and only Jesus) as our Lord and savior. If we don’t then we are forever separated from God in the afterlife… No love from God in the afterlife for the unrepentant or for those that don’t accept Jesus as their savior. The Christian notion of God doles out love VERY conditionally after you die.

    Your message, though, is quite a bit better than standard Christian theology and I hope that one day Christian theology morphs into what you apparently believe.

    Of course, many here would also argue that Love can stand on its own without needing to equate it to some supernatural entity. People here would also argue that there probably isn’t an afterlife or if there is one, that we can’t possibly know what it would be like. Therefore we might as well live life as well as we can and try to love as much as we can. Perhaps we can have some common ground here.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I don’t think anyone owes their outing to anyone else, or to any common cause. If coming out is in your own best self interest, if the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, then do it. Then if that happens to contribute to the overall acceptance and normalization of atheism, great, but it should be for your benefit first.

    Bravo! And here I thought I was the only one who thought so! (Or thought that we were allowed to say this out loud.)

    The RDF’s Scarlet A should have an asterick on it, and right below the scarlet A should be the asterick’s explanation in Richard Wade’s words.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @Non-Litigious Atheist,

    That is also the way I think. I’m not quite sure how you came to think that most atheists think people have some obligation to come out. While agreeing that it would be helpful if more people came out, I support the idea of it being a personal decision that should be in the self-interest of the person making the decision.

    For instance, the self-interest and personal details of a professor in academia may be quite different than a small business owner in a rural setting.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I’m not quite sure how you came to think that most atheists think people have some obligation to come out.

    @Jeff P: Actually, Jeff, I don’t think that at all. I think most atheists do not think that atheists have any obligation to out themselves at all, since most atheists are in fact closeted themselves, and I doubt they are struggling internally about their decision to remain in the closet. (Their actions betray what they really believe.)

    It’s the activist atheists – the ones who participate in various atheist organizations – who erroneously seem to think we atheists have some obligation ‘the cause’. It is they who seem to (immorally, IMO) encourage atheists to out themselves come what may for their personal lives. So to see Richard Wade openly ‘defying’ them is pretty encouraging to me. (Not that long ago Hemant was saying that most of us can agree on the need for people to out themselves. Evidently not.)

    I think this idea that we must sacrifice our own well-being for ‘the cause’ is typical behavior for activists – probably the same is true for activist feminists versus everyday women who just want their equal pay as men for the same work. So I don’t think activist atheists are any different than any other activists. But the activists do have their own ideological agendas, and in pursuit of those ends they pretend to represent all or most nonbelievers. In reality, I think that they represent only a small fringe of nonbelievers – probably less than 10% of them – though I have no way to really gauge that. That would explain part of the reason why there are millions of American atheists but only tens of thousands of members of atheist organizations at best.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    But then again, I’m the one who’s suffered from major clinical depression, agoraphobia, and social phobia. So I don’t feel like much of a poster child for atheism.

    @Jude: Good for you for being yourself. Being a poster child for atheism is just being a tool for those atheists willing to exploit you for their ends. Go find someone else to do your bidding, masters. We don’t need your ‘leadership’. I am not a sheep! Go herd yourself!

    I do really wonder, though, if someone withholds love because you come out to them as an atheist if they ever really loved you at all. I have some people that I wonder seriously to myself, “Would they love me if they knew this about me?”. It makes me sad and scared because I would not take it well.

    @pansies4me: Plus not everyone is lucky enough to have the love of friends and family – children of the orphanage, for example. A lot of people feel like they are on their own in this life because they really are on their own. Those people have absolutely no incentive to give others any more reason to dislike them, since they could use all the help they can get. Sometimes staying in the closet it the safest bet.

    If a person withholds love and support, they weren’t worth having in your life in the first place.

    @Mel: In an ideal world, maybe. But those who could use all the help they can get might have to settle for less than perfection.

    My crazy meds help, but there’s no happy pill out there that I’ve ever come across.

    @pansies4me: A happiness pill would not be all that it’s cracked up to be!

    For many atheists, recognizing to others that they are nonbelievers is a huge decision. While doubtlessly many religious families are lovely and supportive, many are not. People face ostracism, bullying, divorce, cutting off of college funds, the works, when coming out as atheist in some cases. So many atheists live in a religious “closet” (obviously modelled on the gay closet) pretending to believe to avoid the consequences of coming out.

    @Claudia: For years I have wisely kept my unbelief to myself when attending annual get-togethers with relatives like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Good thing, too, because the one person you would expect to be most tolerant–a Jew in an interfaith marriage with a Christian–I overheard complaining about Richard Dawkins being at it again at one of these get togethers. Given the choice, I’d rather not be the subject of muffled whispers or behind-the-back slights if I can avoid it.

    I just want to get through the annual dysfunctional family Christmas unscathed – so no, I don’t insist that my relatives recognize a happy Solstice or Festivus or any other bullshit holidays :)

  • Richard Wade

    Dunefish,

    And I can’t even be honest with some atheists about my deconversion story… because well, it’s such a shame to exactly reflect the worst stereotypes they are fighting against.

    I’m okay with you, and I’m sure many other atheists are as well. People’s journeys to free thinking vary from the horrendously difficult to the completely effortless, but each one is a human’s journey. No one should expect every single step to be perfectly wise, perfectly logical, or for perfect motives. One way or another, you got to this point. We’re glad to see you!

    Concentrate on doing the daily things that relieve your depression, and getting whatever professional help will give you a leg up. Despite the loony things your family believes about your mental illness stuff, you have friends and potential friends who understand and care. Find them and nurture their friendships.

    Depression lies to you, telling you that you can never defeat it. Don’t believe it. Fight back!

  • Richard Wade

    Nichole,
    Jobs and workplaces can be unpleasant sometimes, but yours sounds downright toxic to you. Nobody should have to cry regularly or to despair at work. Such tension, depression, whatever you want to call it, can become a habit if you are in it too long, so even if the aggravating people leave, you can be stuck with an internalized, self-perpetuating funk.

    Surely your job is replicated somewhere else. Surely your skills are applicable to some other kind of work. Question skeptically whatever “yes, but” comes up that stops you from looking for and finding a better place or a better way to make a living.

    I stayed way too long in more than one job, because by practice, I got good at seeing myself as a victim. Don’t keep practicing that.

  • Deanna

    @ Jeff…I’m all for loving as much as we can in this life no matter what your beliefs are. So I am so happy to meet you on common ground there!! Regarding Christian theology…you really can’t put us all in one basket. There are so many divisions within Christianity itself. And really, Jesus’ teaching was only of love. He really threw out a lot of what was written about God in the Old Testament. He never harmed nor judged anyone. I just talked to a very devout Catholic friend of mine today and told her how you guys feel so discriminated against. She said “Really?? If that’s the case, then we Chrisitans aren’t doing a good enough job in spreading the message of God’s love!” Those are the Christians I am friends with. And there are MANY of us! We love y’all no matter what!

  • http://Religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @Deanna,

    I hope your version of Christianity gains more market-share within the big tent of Christianity and those that believe non-Christians are somehow sub-human (and deserving of hell) lose market share.

    Do you really believe that Jesus isn’t really the “only way”? Or is your talk of love just a lot of sugar-coating of a very rigid theology?


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