The Struggles of the Quiet Atheists

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.

But even the “atheist at the breakfast table” doesn’t have it *that* easy:

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.

Grierson wrote quite a bit about the struggles many quiet atheists face — and who better to talk to about those struggles than our own Richard Wade? (Yay!)

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.

Psychology Today put the full article behind a paywall… but Grierson has an unabridged version of the article up on his own site.

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    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.

    I have a huge problem with this pair of sentences.  The way it is written implies that the latter sentence is a result of the former, but the latter finding long predates the phenomenon described in the first sentence — and in fact, there is limited evidence that the events described in the first sentence may have gone some way to reduce the findings in the second.  It’s too soon to say, of course… the increasing outspokeness of some atheists may eventually reduce the distrust of atheists, it may amplify it (as the author cravenly implies), or it may have no meaningful effect.  But to imply that the question is already answered is just nasty.  It’s hateful, it’s dishonest, it’s lousy journalism.

    • valerick

      The whole thing is an atheist smear piece disguised in the kind of dog whistle Christian coding that the self-righteous love to use. You are exactly right. It gets worse as the rest of the article tries to paint atheism as just another version of religion by trying to use spiritually as some sort of common ground. At least for the good atheists who keep their mouths shut, anyway. Humanizes humanists? That’s some Uncle Tom nonsense right there.

    • BrandonUB

      I was going to chime in on exactly the same pair of sentences. It’s complete victim blaming bullshit, stating that the reason why Americans distrust atheists is because they’re just so darned strident. The author provides utterly no evidence of this claim, which suggests to me that it’s simply his own bias speaking, rather than being supported by factual evidence. Had he instead stated that visibility has not yet mitigated public distrust of atheists, this would be a very, very different sentiment.

      • LeftSidePositive

        Me too!!!

        I mean, seriously…since atheists were not even allowed to testify in court or hold office in all states until the SIXTIES, how could anyone POSSIBLY think the “dislike” and “distrust” is the result of the Gnus?!

    • LutherW

       No article can ‘humanize atheists’ we are naturally humanized already. However, often other humanized individuals vilanize atheists, as that is another thing, unfortunately that humans do.

      • http://lizheywoodwriter.blogspot.com/ Liz Heywood

        Humanize, yes! Humanization is the key, as opposed to the deification believers are so into, along with spiritualization. We atheists are so humanized that we ditched the big sky-santa for each other! Humanity is the miracle, which is exactly what Richard Wade said to that woman. Don’t waste your time worrying about politics–just love the people around you.  

    • Reginald Selkirk

       The preceding sentence is also problematic:

      galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor

      My, but that sounds violent.

      • LeftSidePositive

        Especially since some strident religious believers have actually burst into churches and murdered people in recent years…

  • valerick

    Are we reading the same article? Seems to be a pretty clear condemnation of any atheist who dares have a vocal opinion. He draws no distinction between atheists “you hear about” and guns-ablazing militants and therefore implies that simply being heard justifies distrust? There’s a nuanced argument to be made about how minorities can harm their own causes, but he ain’t making it.

    • Stev84

      And the “good atheists” are only good because they still find some value in religion and teach it to their children

  • Fuzz

    The article seems to suggest that there’s nothing wrong with moderate religious faith. I disagree — even at moderate levels, most religious faith essentially teach that there are people who are good and people who are bad purely because of their beliefs — this is the fundamental basis of most organized religions, moderate or extremist (the extremists simply act out on this belief), and is harmful to a diverse community.

    My sister-in-law is a very nice, non-confrontational, moderate Christian. Yet she forwarded us an email which effectively blamed atheists for 9/11, Katrina, and all the murders and problems in our world (and therefore how we need to turn to god to have a good world). When my wife challenged the assertions in the email, she simply said that she didn’t mean any harm, she just liked the message of the email — seemingly unaware of what the message actually is saying. And even though she allegedly doesn’t mean any harm, she supports a system and organizations that do propagate divisiveness.  It’s like that saying: “I don’t support bigotry, I only support a book that does.”

    • Ryan

      “most religious faith essentially teach that there are people who are good and people who are bad purely because of their beliefs”
      Oh really? Or do you just mean most Abrahamic religions?

      I think many religious leaders of other faiths would disagree with you.

      Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion. Dalai Lama The Vedanta recognizes no sin it only recognizes error. And the greatest error, says the Vedanta is to say that you are weak, that you are a sinner, a miserable creature, and that you have no power and you cannot do this and that. Swami Vivekananda Among the wealthy, compassionate men claim the richest wealth,
      For material wealth is possessed by even contemptible men.
       
      Find and follow the good path and be ruled by compassion.
      For if the various ways are examined, compassion will prove the means to liberation.
       
      - Tirukkural 25: 241-242

      Perfection does not come from belief or faith. Talk does not count for anything. Parrots can do that. Perfection comes through selfless work.
      Swami Vivekananda

      • Fuzz

        I did say “most”, but I should have clarified “most” in terms of number of believers (especially in most of the western world). And although I see your point about some of the eastern religions/faiths, I am not sure if the practice follows the theory. I grew up as a Muslim in Bangladesh, so I have seen firsthand the vitriol that Muslims and Hindus aim at each other in the subcontinent. The hatred I’ve seen from both sides is based on the the fact that the other person is of a different faith, and not on the other person’s actions. Kindness and compassion have not always been appreciated or met with the same from the other side (of either religion).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    Okay, so I’m not the only one to have this reaction.

    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.

    One question: Can somebody point me to an “Ask Richard” where he does choose principle over pragmatism?  I can’t recall any… not that I don’t think Richard’s voice is valuable, but one problem I have with the Ask Richard columns is that he almost never seems to think that it is time to take a stand.  You have to pick your battles, for sure, but that doesn’t mean picking no battles…

  • http://twitter.com/1AngryAtheist The Angry Atheist

    ” 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.”
       I have a problem with that statement. It’s unfair at least to give the impression that atheists are either one kind or the other. Most of the atheists I’ve met fall somewhere in-between and are rarely acknowledged by anyone. The reason for that is articles like this one. I’m sick of being put in a negative category because I actually stand up for what I believe in. Do I run around with ‘guns ablaze’ sometimes? Damn right. Do I keep quiet sometimes because to make a fuss would be pointless? Yes again. From my experience this is the way most atheists behave and it will be nice when people start to realize that the moderates are almost always the majority and moderates are not just sitting quietly to the side watching. James Sweet and others are a good example of this.

  • TheG

    I think the author misses a valuable point. Yes, there are two kinds of atheists: the vocal and the silent. But there are two kinds of silent atheists. There are those that just choose to live their lives while not believing in a god, but there are also those of us who desperately don’t want to be “closet” atheists and are forced to be silent for fear of losing our jobs, families, and communities.

    One group is silent by choice while those of us that remain silent out of oppression are forced to only dream of the day that we can break free of the thumb of the majority.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

      I suspect the latter group of silent atheists  is the larger.  Our ultimate goal should be to create a world for more atheists who “just choose to live their lives while not believing in a god.”

    • newavocation

      Excellent point! You could also say that most UU’s are so tolerant that their silence condones religious fundamentalism and the abuse and injustice that it brings.

  • Cutencrunchy

    “When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy” (for the religious). Empathy without understanding perhaps.

    Perhaps when your daughter is sold for 40 shekels, when the pastor tells your wife she needs to stay silent, when your friend is shamed, beaten and ridiculed and denied equality for his sexual identity perhaps then the idea of empathy for those who hold in high praise the values of such dogmatic oppression will shift ever so slightly to those condemned to burn in hell for eternity by those who would influence laws to condemn and arrest these sinful non-believers. 

    The lack of trust people feel for atheists is the fear of losing their privileges as an abusive brainwashing cult, it’s the fear of learning and the struggle to avoid growing.

    Being nice and polite in the face of oppressive beliefs is NOT okay! We can be diplomatic without capitulating to genital mutilation, unhealthy sexual moralities, and this outrageous notion that we should pander to the status quo to avoid making waves.. because it makes US look bad is pure manipulation.

    Be smart, be clear, be compassionate, but don’t ever be quietly tolerant to those who’s belief’s harm others – for one day those belief’s and the power you quietly yield to them will be  contrary to your own and your liberty and life may very well be in question. When we fight for others now we for for ourselves always.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I take exception to this “new breed” idea. Since at least the Age of Reason, most intelligent people have been atheists. Today, I don’t know a single person with intelligence significantly above average who isn’t an atheist. Then, as now, many of these didn’t make a real point of their atheism, either out of a lack of interest, or out of social pressure.

    There are a LOT more atheists out there than studies suggest, and that’s been the case for a few hundred years. The “new breed” is the vocal atheists, who with changes in the social environment can now identify themselves. But they’re coming out of the ranks of the “quiet atheists”, who’ve been there all along. Nothing new about them.

    • DS

       ”Today, I don’t know a single person with intelligence significantly above average who isn’t an atheist.”  You need to get out more!

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        I know a lot of people. The reality is, very few theists are of significantly above average intelligence. And on the web… I haven’t found a site yet where theists, in discussing atheism, are capable of constructing even a reasonably consistent argument. I don’t think there are any in this forum.

        • valerick

          My experiences have been generally consistent with yours, with one (big) exception: Mormons. There are some extremely intelligent Mormons and I know a few myself. I blame it on the fact that if they get you young, they are one of the most successful brain-programming machines on the planet. /end tangent.

        • Ndonnan

          Ha,if you put a picture board together of famous theists like the atheists one this week,im sure we wouldnt have so much trouble identifying them as we did the atheists women especially.You must get out more

          • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            So you’re suggesting that fame somehow correlates with intelligence?

            I’d suggest that a high percentage of the really intelligent people that we might consider theists are, in fact, not. They’re just “passing”.

        • Stev84

          There is also the phenomenon of compartmentalization. People can be very intelligent in many areas, but throw out of all of it when it comes to religion. Take Blaise Pascal. A mathematical genius who was also an accomplished physicist. But he turned into a shallow, bumbling moron when he wrote about religion.

          • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            Exactly, and that’s my experience with most intelligent theists- they shine in certain areas, but there are no polymaths amongst them.

    • Anarchogirl

      And then ya wonder why people don’t like atheists. I am an atheist and have been for quite a long time now, and I can’t stand most people who are ‘vocal’ theists because they are patronizing and condescending as shit. oMG atheists are the only smart people duh!

  • teressa81

    This and the comments are really enlightening for me. I used to say that I’d never met an atheist, but it turns out, I’ve known plenty. They’ve just been quiet. 

    But I’m grateful for the outspoken ones, too. They’re the ones who get forums like this made, who advance reason for the entire public to see. I don’t know if I would have learned as much about atheism if it weren’t for those people.

     

  • Sibs

    As interesting as it is to see myself obliquely referenced in Psychology Today, where did the idea that I’m British come from?