The invisible atheists

The invisible atheists September 5, 2014

Invisible-ManPicture an atheist. If you’re like most people, you’re probably picturing a middle-aged white guy complaining angrily about religion. Even if you are an atheist yourself, one who is neither white nor a guy nor angry, you still might picture that and think of yourself as an exception.

For years I fit that stereotype pretty well, and I still fit at least half of it. But most atheists don’t, and they often end up invisible, drowned out by the more aggressive voices.

Many people think of nonbelievers as hostile and unpleasant because they only see atheists when they are hostile and unpleasant. Conflict drives the news, so atheists are mostly in the public eye when they’re fighting against religious incursions into politics or the science classroom, or when they see religious ideas curtailing women’s reproductive rights, or denying kids health care, or fueling racism and homophobia, or any of a long list of other things that are pretty damn deserving of some anger.

But here’s the thing: If the only time you see atheists is when they’re angry about religion, it’s natural to think of atheists as cranky people who spend all of their time and energy opposing religion.

When’s the last time you saw an atheist who was in the news for alleviating poverty and suffering? I know a couple thousand of these through my work with Foundation Beyond Belief. What about those who build bridges with progressive believers, or even enjoy religious ritual themselves, even though they don’t believe? And what about those who are fully atheistic but simply don’t care a bit about religion OR about opposing it?

They’re out there in droves, but most of us never hear about them. They remain invisible, and the impression that there’s only one kind of atheist persists.

But it’s beginning to change. In the last few years, I’ve probably seen a dozen different ways of categorizing the different kinds of atheists, from my own description in Atheism For Dummies of the greater visibility of social justice and community among our concerns to the four types proposed by PZ Myers (scientific, philosophical, political, humanist) to as many as 42 categories in a blogpost I now can’t find to save my life.

I always find these things interesting. But every time someone proposes categories like this — EVERY time — somebody in the comments will sniff, “I don’t like labels. They divide people.” Or, “I’m an ATHEIST, period. I don’t need a hyphenation.”

No problem. If you don’t need a sub-category, don’t use one. But I get why some people find them so satisfying: because in some small way, it pulls off the invisibility cloak that denies who they are and how they are different, that subsumes them into the herd.

non_hyphenated_american_t_shirts-rd0994b21e20e46c4953d6c467d4527ce_804gy_324When you hear someone complaining about “hyphenated Americans”  — a complaint that goes back to the 1890s — you can Harriet-shirtbe pretty confident that the speaker doesn’t feel invisible, and is comfortable being assimilated into the majority, and probably isn’t disadvantaged or denied privileges as a result.

The same thing pops up in freethought with “I’m not an ‘Atheist Plus,’ I’m just an atheist,” and “I’m not a ‘skepchick,’ not a ‘woman skeptic,’ just a skeptic.” There’s no problem nixing the modifiers, of course. But the implication is crystal clear: I’m not these things, and you shouldn’t be either. And once again, it’s usually coming from someone who doesn’t feel invisible, on the margins, unrepresented by the majority.

I know what it’s like to be on the margins. I’m an atheist, so I know how it feels to disappear into someone else’s assumption that I believe in their god, to feel the need to clarify who and what I really am. So in cases when I’m in the privileged default myself — cisgender, straight, white, etc. — I’m happy to let people describe themselves in whatever way they wish, even if I don’t get it. They known better than I do what’s important to them.

That’s why uncovering the invisible atheists, the ones who don’t feel represented by default assumptions about atheism, is worth doing. As a nice by-product, it can show the millions of closeted atheists who don’t match the public face of atheism that yes, there IS a place for them to stand.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jennifer Allen

    “The same thing pops up in freethought with “I’m not an ‘Atheist Plus,’ I’m just an atheist,” and “I’m not a ‘skepchick,’ not a ‘woman skeptic,’ just a skeptic.” There’s no problem nixing the modifiers, of course. But the implication is crystal clear: I’m not these things, and you shouldn’t be either.”

    That, I think, is incorrect. For example, I’ve tried (with zero success) to convince the A+ crowd that they can and should be both atheist and feminist, but that they shouldn’t put a label on it or mix their messages. When selling atheism to someone who is suspicious of feminism, stick to atheism and skip the feminism. When touting feminism to a theist, tout feminism and leave atheism out of it.

  • Søren Kongstad

    You mean they should be atheist plus feminist, atheist plus humanist?
    What would a convenient shorthand for that be I womder?

    I think you miss the point of this article. If you want to hold on to dictionary atheism, and use different titles for different ideas you hold, that is all good.

    Some people merge their thoughts. Freedom from religion foundation are a home for atheists agnistics and non believers and they fight for speration of church and state, which is beyond atheism.

    American atheists have a position on gay rights, gay rights is not atheism. The atheist community of Austin have a humanism in the center of their mission statement, but humanism is not atheism. Dale has parenting beyond belief, and parenting is not atheism.

    It works the other way to. Most churches have missions related to their religion, but not directly in their religion. The many christians who oppose gay marriage with a vengeance tie it together with their faith, even though in most cases it is not a requirement of their religion. Religious abolitionists fought to free slaves, all the while religious defenders of the status quo fought to keep slavery.

    So when Dawkins starts a foundation to remove religions influence and reduce the stigma of atheism, this is not atheism, but atheism plus some other stuff. It is not JUST a fight for reason, for this can be fought by atheists and theists alike, and indeed any ally should be welcome when the goals do not clash, but merge on significant points.

    What is left is that some people think that naming it A+ might be confusing to some, perhaps, but why do you get to decide what people call them selves or their causes? Dawkins has been asked numerous times if he is aware that his being a staunch defender of reason in the Evolution – superstition debate, is not harmed by him being a staunch critic of religion, since the latter gives ammunition for people who want to attack the first.

    Most atheists shrug this of as missing the point, which I think you are doing when you are targeting the A+ crowd. They can name themselves as they damn well please, sniping about what people might think is concern or tone trolling.

  • Jennifer Allen

    You are absolutely 100% correct. Any group can name themselves as they damn please and can mix their messages as they damn please. It’s also their absolute right to do so to the detriment of each of their multiple goals.

  • Søren Kongstad

    So since atheism has no goals, every atheist activist has to mix her message as she see fit.
    What is you evidence that making a point of the fact that you want something besides spreading the tide that god might not exist is bad?

    A+ is atheism plus secularism, is that acceptable to you? Apparently feminism is of the table – so have you scolded Dawkins for talking about the plight of women under muslim fundementalism. Is he allowed to mix the pure message of atheism with regards for the fate of actual, you know, humans?

    Since atheism does not entail regard for basic human decency, where is the outcry when Hitchens got mad a Rabbi for making fun of circumcision. How can people berate others as social justice warriors, as if that is something bad, and still act like they actually care about other people – if we are not allowed to mix the message of atheism – we do not believe in dogs – with social justice, such as seperation of church and state – opposition to racism and sexism, whether the root source is religious or prejudices formed in other ways?

  • Jennifer Allen

    At a Fiat dealer, the salesman doesn’t mention his political views. He doesn’t say, “I’m a Trotsky socialist bent on changing the world, and I’d like to show you a Fiat.” To do so would almost certainly reduce his chances of making a sale. Later that day, when the same guy speaks at a political meeting, he doesn’t talk about his passion for small Italian cars. In each case, his focus is on his goal of the moment with no mention of his other goals in life. He doesn’t mix his messages.

    Now, if you can, please generalize on that.

  • Dustinyolo

    I liked the fedora. I often picture atheists as slinging a fedora onto themselves. It fits the iage they’ve been cultivating of complaining about seeing religious stuff very well. It’s a form of insanity like a person shouting about how unicorns are ruining their country,