Sunday Morning Survey – ‘When’s The Right Time To Announce You’re A Young Atheist?’

Sunday Morning Survey – Because On A Morning This Nice It’s More Fun To Stretch Your Brain Than Stretch The Spine Of A Hymn Book.

Firstly – hat-tip to the very kind Digital Cuttlefish who has blogged about the Phiten necklaces in Prime Time Superstition and gave a hat-tip to my blog-post on NRG TitaniumION Bands.

More importantly, as mentioned by WWJT in his recent blog-post, Digital Cuttlefish once wrote about Jessica Ahlquist, in a blog-post called Fox News Commenters Hate America. Young people facing prejudice for coming out as an atheist is not unheard of. So, when a young Australian writes about prejudice that they’ve faced in the classroom… of course they’re going to wonder about the wisdom of defending themselves. Especially if they’re in a faith-school.

A young commentator on a forum board was concerned about how some comments were made about atheists (which they consider themselves to be) weren’t very positive and they were worried as to whether even speaking out in a ‘devil’s-advocate’ fashion was somehow the wrong thing to do. Not that they were completely negative comments – but when do you choose your battles?

It’s not just faith-schools where one can face this – it can also mean entire communities. Alom Shaha has a book coming out, with a foreword by the great A.C Grayling. Yet it’s going to be published OUTSIDE the UK due to concerns about the content. What’s the title? The Young Atheist’s Handbook:

I grew up in a strict Bangladeshi Muslim community in South-East London in the 1970s and 80s. I was expected to go to mosque regularly and recite passages in Arabic from the Quran, without being told what they meant. I spent my teenage years juggling two utterly different worlds: my chaotic, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic family life on a council estate, and that of a student at a privileged private school set amongst the idyllic green playing fields of Dulwich. 

In the years since I realized I neither had nor wanted faith in the religious sense, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the world and how to develop my own moral and ethical compass. The Young Atheist’s Handbook is the result of that thinking.

Do you wait until there’s some big issue that you can make a legal stand about? Do you just learn as much as you can during your schooling and early life and use it to better inform your later outed-atheist self? And where do you seek support and guidance if you do find yourself challenged – on a forum board, like the young Australian atheist? By seeking out support groups like Jessica Ahlquist? What if you’re growing up in a strict community where you don’t feel as if you have access to such resources?

Is there ever a right time for all?

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Cuttlefish

    Is there ever a right time…? Wow. I have been lucky. Or maybe just insensitive, come to think of it. I never felt that much pressure, but in truth the pressure was there and I was blind to it. I just found out a couple months ago about my mom’s feelings nearly 30 years ago–something she attributes (in hindsight) to my atheism (incorrectly–at the time, I was not yet an atheist…. just a rude son) and which hurt her, and I did not see.

    I never felt the sort of threats that Jessica Ahlquist has seen. Nothing even close. My kids have had more direct questions about their beliefs than I have had.

    What I’m trying now is simply to change the environment where I am, so that there *is* some sort of support system in place for future Jessicas, or future Cuttlekids. I had it easy, so I have plenty of energy to spare for it.

    • Aliasalpha

      Cuttlekids? Sounds like a line of aquatic themed plush toys

  • Aliasalpha

    It seems to me that the ideal time to speak uo is when comments aren’t entirely negative. That implies honest misunderstanding rather than active opposition and a bit of exposure to the subject might nip a gradual change towards opposition in the bud.

    Obviously another excellent time is where bullying is happening. After all stopping stupidity from harming the innocent is one of the most important things you can do, whether its done by a reasoned argument, a witty put down or a solid left hook.

  • John Morales

    I dunno about when to choose to speak out, but I do know that the religious (Christians, in this instance) are conspicuously-silent about chiding their fellow adherents when they indulge in the sort of bullying Jessica Ahlquist faces.

    (And such silence is very, very loud)

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Silence can be loud. I’ve experienced outright bullying and silencing – and upon emailing everyone who was on the abusive email that was sent to me, essentially saying ‘I’m so proud to see that not one of you stood up for me in the face of such blatant bullying…’ … and no one responded even to that.
      Sure, two on the list took the time to say to my face later in the year that they felt they ‘couldn’t say anything and felt bad about it,’ – but the damage was done by then. When there are no ramifications and no one who takes a stand, it continues.

      • Maria

        Prejudice can happen anywhere, even with so-called “rational” people. I can understand what Kylie means there. Everyone can fall for being too “extremist” with their views.

        I think its difficult to become too combative if you’re afraid to. What gets people into strife is ego and biases and not even admitting them (especially to ourselves). You have to not only admit to yourself that you might be acting unfairly, but also knowing that in doing so, your friends and people you look up to are wrong as well. It’s even tougher when people you DON’T admire might be right in some cases.

        For a teacher, to have to admit that they’re wrong to a student or even a whole class? That could have ramifications. So, there’s a dignity and professionalism aspect to consider as well.

        • echidna

          None of us are perfect, and we learn from our mistakes. A teacher models something very powerful when admitting to mistakes – and an inability to do so suggests a lack of “professionalism”.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    There is never a good time to come out. When I was in my forties I applied for a job and the prospective employer lost all interest in me after the personnel director discovered I was an atheist.

    • John Morales

      Himself, I take it you did not volunteer that information, but rather that you were honest in completing your application as required?

      • Kylie Sturgess

        Sometimes all it takes is an internet search. :/

        • John Morales

          Good point, Kylie — but Himself is USA-based and smart enough to be pseudonymous, you and I are Aussies and have no such need.

    • Aliasalpha

      Given how easily you were tossed aside over an irrelevant matter, would the job have been worth it anyway?

  • BillyJoe

    And then there is the situation when you actually have a job and the people you have to deal with are religious and just assume that you are religious also. In this situation, there is a big downside to saying “hey, I’m an atheist”. Firstly, it’s an irrelevant tangent and, secondly, you are likely to lose your clients.

  • spdoyle17

    When is the best time to come out? That depends entirely on your environment and the sort of situation one has growing up. Generally children distance themselves from distance, but if the young atheist in question is relatively popular inside the peer group, and it’s not too heavily religious an area, than it would just be a matter of how supportive one’s parents are, and how one comes out to the parents. Maybe as early as the teenage years, maybe as late as financial independence from one’s parents, maybe never. There really isn’t a hard and fast rule here. Religious parents may likely assume it’s a rebellious phase. Pre-adulthood, the peer group will simply react to try to keep the herd moving in the same direction, or cull the atheist out.
    While I don’t quite think it’s my place here to recommend something more concrete, I would say 18 years old at the earliest. I didn’t take the ostracism well at all, and it didn’t abate until I left for college. If anything, the self-control of the closeted lifestyle will be character building, but I can’t say it would be comfortable either way.

  • bandm

    Well, I am lucky in Australia. The most severe consequence I have had as an atheist has been a couple of Facebook defriendings, mostly of people I barely know who have been offended by my random atheist postings. Most of the priests on my FB have not been offended in the slightest and are completely lovely.

    As a church organist, I have a new job that I started a few months ago, and in the interview process I volunteered that I was not Christian as I didn’t want to be too included in the worship aspects, and followed that up by saying I was an atheist, and the priest didn’t mind at all. There’s a real shortage of organists around and I’m much better than most, so that gives me a more powerful position :)

  • Crudely Wrott

    The best time to come out as an atheist? I think a qualifier is needed in the form of, come out to whom?

    If it is to the whole wide world and all one’s friends and neighbors the answer may be never. Or, possibly, right now.

    If it is to trusted family members or close, trusted friends, then it’s a judgment call. Without a relationship based on trust and respect the decision can be dicey at best, catastrophic at worst. If you are young and in a religious environment such a decision must be terribly disconcerting and frightening.

    I think good counsel would be to become confident and comfortable with your non-belief first. Perhaps some time spent talking into a mirror in private can help with phraseology and tone of voice. The timing of your declaration and the company present must be considered as well as being prepared to deal with the reactions you might provoke.

    Any announcement that might cause distress to others, especially those close to you as well a those who can exercise authority over you, demands tact, kindness and a firm resolution.

    Without a doubt, you should be prepared to defend your position and you must anticipate others reactions and be prepared to cope with them. All things considered, and these are just a sampling, the best time is when you are ready. Only you will know that moment — seize it!