I am a quote junkie, and one of my all-time favorites is that it is better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you aren’t. Not only is it damn true, but I feel it defines what it most often means to come out of the closet as an atheist. It is an enormous pity that normal, good people must be faced with those two options.
It always comes up in the Q&A of a talk: what is the best piece of activism someone can do for the atheist cause? I’ve said it repeatedly. I said it in Des Moines at the AA convention in April where it was pretty much all I said: come out of the closet.
Yes, it’s tough. Yes, there are often social penalties and that sucks.
Come out of the closet.
Yes, we have all the best arguments. Yes, our position is the most reasonable. But in order to alter the public atmosphere such that atheists stop being demonized, Americans must begin to realize that we are not some coven of malicious wrong-doers hiding away in the shadows, but that instead we are their neighbors and their co-workers. They must be forced to acknowledge that we are their friends. They must accept that we are their sons and their daughters. They must accept that we are their parents.
In short: they must, absolutely must, be faced with the fact that they like us. This movement is gifted with some very powerful speakers, some amazingly eloquent writers, and the most effective organizers. However, their combined efforts and perspicacity cannot even approach the efficacy of atheists being honest to those close to them about who they are. In this, you have an ability to effect change in the world that exceeds my own or that of Richard Dawkins.
There are people in the world like Chris
Steadman Stedman who think the way to get religious people to like us is to watch the intellectual poison in others and do nothing (or even nurture it). They are wrong. The religious people already like us – they already admire and respect us – they just don’t know who we are.
People willing to come out of the closet (and an environment that makes coming out endurable) has been a huge part of why the gay rights movement has come so far.
And you can participate: all you must do is record a video. All you have to do is tell your story to others so they see that coming out is a relief, it’s wonderful, and that there is a community waiting on them that will love them as they truly are, rather than the image they must concoct to avoid being hassled or discriminated against. If you want to know how you can change the world, the answer is simple: speak up. I truly believe it’s the single most important thing you can do for this movement.
That’s why I did it. It’s why Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Greta Christina have done it. It’s why PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and a host of others have committed to telling their stories. It is why you should do it. If the chronicle of your ascent to atheism is particularly sad, then this may be unimaginably difficult. Sadly, it is your story with which so many secret atheists will be able to empathize, and so it is your story for which there is the greatest need.
Religion does not win by having good arguments – it wins by empty emotional appeals, intimidation/idealogical bullying, and community. For people to leave religion, there must be a community there to replace that of their religion (or to exceed it). Those unchaining themselves from religion must know that a community awaits them that will accept them, care for them, love them, and, most importantly, understand in the way our religious institutions cannot. We have the opportunity to create that landscape in our hands. If we care, or wish to construct the environment in which we wish we lived, I would argue that it is nothing short of our obligation to do so.