Bruce Grierson has a wonderful article in the June, 2012 issue of Psychology Today about the quiet atheists — the ones who don’t believe in a god but aren’t all that outspoken about it. They don’t debate religion or get into online battles. They just want to raise their children and spend time with their families — without religion.
It’s risky to say anything categorically about atheists — for a more individualistic bunch would be hard to find. But let’s propose that there are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the kind you don’t.
The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.
The kind of atheist you don’t hear about is different — in strategy or temperament or both.
In the vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, is where millions of this kind of atheist and agnostics live, more or less quietly, with their families.
Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British woman who called herself “Christmas Elf,” and described her fairly common dilemma thus: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas Pageant at her church. Kind of awkward, as she is an atheist. Love and familial duty was suddenly colliding with an uncomfortable personal sense of hypocrisy. She was leaning toward helping with the pageant. What did Richard think?
He was with her. “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents,” he said. “You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.” By Richard Wade’s lights, there are times to be fiercely principled, and times to be pragmatic, and you have to do the calculus case by case. When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy. And that, Wade believes, is the key to dealing with anger and hurt in a family divided by faith.
It’s not very often that we see an article actually humanizing Humanists in a mainstream publication. This is a good one, though. Check it out.