The Truth Doesn’t Always Set You Free

Julian Baggini, writing for the Financial Times, has a fascinating article on how hard atheists have it in certain parts of the country. Besides being unable to go public about their beliefs out of fear of losing their job or their relationships with family members, running for public office and finding a counselor when you’re in the military is also (essentially) out of the question.

Dave Silverman poses with 'The Village Atheist' sign - Jason Andrew/FT

I know, I know, you’ve heard all of this before. But a lot of people may not have and this article needs to come to their attention.

A couple of highlights:

The most extraordinary story I heard was from a woman in Tuscaloosa county, Alabama. She grew up in nearby Lamar county, raised in the strict Church of Christ, where there is no music with worship and you can’t dance. She says her family love her and are proud of her, but “I’m not allowed to be an atheist in Lamar County”. What is astonishing is that she can be pretty much anything else. “Being on crack, that was OK. As long as I believed in God, I was OK.” So, for example, “I’m not allowed to babysit. I have all these cousins who need babysitters but they’re afraid I’ll teach them about evolution, and I probably would.” I couldn’t quite believe this. She couldn’t babysit as an atheist, but she could when she was on crack? “Yes.” I laughed, but it is hard to think of anything less funny.

A report from the Pew Research Center last November showed that 53 per cent of Americans say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. That is one reason why many are afraid of coming out, to the extent that both American Atheists and the American Humanist Association (AHA) will, on request, send mailings to members under plain covers. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, says that even some of the committed rationalists who work in their Washington offices tell family that they work for a “humanitarian group”.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also folds copies of their “newsletter,” Freethought Today, in such a way that the content isn’t visible unless you open the first page.

Even Playboy displays more of its cover than some atheist publications.

When I was growing up, I was the only atheist I knew. I had to get on my bike, ride to the public library and take out the one atheist book that they had in the whole library: The Case Against God by George Smith. Now any atheist can go on Facebook or Myspace and find literally millions of friends.”

That’s how much has changed in a decade. Even when I was in high school, the best resources for atheism I could find were shady AOL chatrooms or simplistic websites with more dry facts about atheism than interesting opinions.

Between books, the blogosphere, advertising campaigns, and the proliferation of local/campus atheist groups, it’s much harder to *not* find information about living without religion. Opinions criticizing Christianity are all over the place, even if they’re not always visible to the general public. The way to keep this momentum going is by encouraging others (and ourselves) to come out of the atheist closet. When the time is right, tell the people you trust that you don’t believe in god. At best, they’ll agree with you. Ideally, at worst, it’ll just be a non-issue.

(Thanks to everyone for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Brian Macker

    What’s the worst she could do to the kids on crack? Kill them and they go to heaven to live in bliss for eternity. What’s the worst worst she could do as an atheist? Cause the kids to roast in he’ll for eternity. Obviously they close a crackhead over an atheist babysitter.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      The scariest part about what you just said, Brian, is that many fundamentalists can repeat it and be serious about it.

      • Brian Macker

        No the scariest thing about this is they used to torture people to death using this exact reasoning, to save them from eternal damnation. Burn them at the stake and if they repent before death they are saved.

  • Gwen

    Great article. As I have told Dave Silverman, I go into the bible belt disguised as a catholic… (which we all know is not really christian, but still–better than those atheists…). I am a genealogist, and the one person I came out to there, will no longer speak to me or accept my emails. I’m just happy he did not tell anyone else. We had been friends for 2 years, doing research together, and he was my cousin. If anyone else found out, all information paths would be shut for me, and it would hamper my research. As a ‘catholic’, at least I don’t have to go to church with them.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

       and he was my cousin

      The (I’m sure unintentional) use of the past tense is hilarious :-)

  • Anonymous

    You can go online and find many atheists. But does that translate to finding many atheists in your everyday, “real” life? I have many online atheist friends and I consider them to be true, real friends. But in my everyday life I don’t know many other atheists. I can count them on both hands.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I posted this story on my Facebook page hoping most of my religious friends will take the time to read what we are up against. I doubt they will but I’m not afraid to speak out.

  • Keulan

    Good article. I made the mistake of reading the comments on it though, and they are full of stupid.

  • usclat

    What a long-winded article. If you’re an atheist, cool. If you’re not … not cool. But we still can love ya’!

  • Anon

    It’s amazing, I think I get a little more glad to live in Britain with every article of this sort I read. Okay so I can’t attend things like the Reason Rally but on the other hand I can say I’m an atheist (even in a church) and nobody recoils in horror.

    I still find it funny that the country with the piece of legislation PREVENTING religion from mixing with politics has far more religion in it’s politics than the country without. Hell, Nick Clegg is an atheist and much though I may dislike him he’s still the Deputy PM.

    • Anonymous

      That things like Reason Rally are needed in the first place is a bad sign

  • starskeptic

    “The Freedom From Religion Foundation also folds copies of their “newsletter,”Freethought Today, in such a way that the content isn’t visible unless you open the first page. ”
    Folds? mine comes with a cover paper on it – you wouldn’t know what it was unless you opened it…

  • Anon

    You conclude with “ideally, at worst, it’ll be a non-issue,” but the fact is that many people face great opposition from loved ones were they to reveal their true beliefs. I feel like your Blasé conclusion is out of line with the rest of your article saying how difficult things are.

  • Xeon2000

    I have no real life friends that identify as atheists. I have a friend who is a secular humanist, a couple agnostic friends, a cousin who “doesn’t believe in God”… but all of them steadfastly avoid the “a-word”. Many of them are atheists but they just hide it. I’m out about it on Facebook, but everyone else is secretive. It’s annoying being all alone when you know you aren’t.

  • Anonymous

    As it happens, I used to live in the city that one of the quoted atheists finds so intolerant and lonely: Bowling Green, Ky. I was fairly open about my unbelief – didn’t go around yelling “I’m an atheist,” but would tell anyone who asked, and was quite open in my skepticism about any religious issue. I never had a serious problem. Oh, there were a few who reacted with alarm or dislike, but most people shrugged it off – and I didn’t have much trouble finding a bunch of atheist/agnostic/skeptical friends. It’s a short drive to uniformly-hardcore-Christian rural areas, but Bowling Green itself is a college town. Part of the problem may be age-related: the atheist quoted, Harry Purdy, appears to be about 60. Almost all of my atheist friends in Bowling Green are substantially younger than that.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Even when I was in high school, the best resources for atheism I could find were shady AOL chatrooms

    I remember having lots of conversations in the “Beliefs: Atheism” chatroom, LOL.


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