Why I Tell Everyone I Meet That I’m an Atheist

Why I Tell Everyone I Meet That I’m an Atheist December 17, 2014

Guest post by Ali Berman –

It’s not the first thing I say as I reach out to shake hands with someone new. “Hi. My name is Ali Berman and I’m an atheist.” After all, my atheism isn’t the most interesting thing about me. I’m an author. I work at a fantastic nonprofit teaching kids about human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics. I like books, movies, rock climbing, traveling, and volunteering. There are plenty of things to talk about that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I believe in god.

And yet, when I meet someone for the first time, I make a point to casually mention that I’m an atheist during the conversation, especially if the person I’m speaking to happens to bring up religion. Why? Because in a country that is, at best, suspicious of atheists and, at worst, downright hostile toward them, I feel it’s my duty to be a good ambassador for those of us who don’t believe.

Growing up just north of New York City, no one ever told me that my lack of belief would impact how others viewed me. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned that a large portion of the United States feels strongly that atheists are a real threat to the moral fabric of our country. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 53 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist. Perhaps that’s why we have never had an atheist president nor do we currently have a single (public) atheist member of Congress. Another Pew study found that 77 percent of white Evangelicals would be unhappy if a family member married someone who was an atheist. The same goes for 67 percent of black Protestants, 55 percent of Catholics and 46 percent of white mainline Protestants.

What these studies don’t say is why so many people are opposed to those who identify as atheists. What is so wrong with us that the vast majority of people in the USA don’t like or trust us? The answers probably vary widely, but I think the main issue is that to most people, atheists are wildcards. The only thing that binds us together is that we don’t believe in god. When someone declares that he or she is a Christian, or a Buddhist or a Sikh, there are certain things that person is stating they subscribe to. Rules and doctrines that have been written down and accepted. They can be put in a box, defined. Even googled.

Atheists on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. There is no book of atheism or central figure. No moral absolutes someone can point to and say, this defines all atheists. What kind of friends, mothers, daughters, fathers and sons are we? How are we helping the community? What do we value and what are our ethics?

When I was at a wedding a number of years ago, the groom, a very conservative Christian man, asked me a question when I casually mentioned my atheism, as I’m prone to doing. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Where do you get your morals from?” I laughed, a little taken aback by the question, and replied, “Well, from my parents, from society, and from my own personal moral compass.”

His morals all come from one very specific place. The Bible. Mine, on the other hand, are a patchwork and are constantly evolving as I’m presented with new information. For him to know where I stand on any given issue, I have to tell him. I have to let him get to know me. And getting to know someone takes time.

Of course, not all people who share a religion are identical. Two people who attend the same church can hold entirely opposing points of view on any number of topics including LGBT rights, reproductive rights, the death penalty, and divorce. However, they do wear a label that makes some broad statements about what they believe – who created them, and what will happen when they die for example. My label, my broad statement, simply says that I don’t believe in any of the few thousand deities that have been worshipped throughout history. But it doesn’t say anything else about me, other than maybe, I likely look to science to tell me about the universe and its creation.

If we stripped away all labels like Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist and simply talked to one another, talked about our thoughts and ethics, I think we’d all find we have more in common than divides us. We’re probably all against murder, theft and exploiting others for personal gain. We probably all want the best for our families and for the planet. I’m not a Buddhist but my philosophies are pretty similar to those of the Dalai Lama. I’m not Catholic, but I can appreciate much of what the new Pope has been doing and saying.

I don’t want to be a wildcard. I really don’t. And that’s why I try to make who I am and what I believe very plain. I want people to see that the fact that I don’t believe in a god has no impact on my ability to be a good and moral person, the kind of person you might want your son or daughter to marry one day. Or who you might vote for for public office. One day I hope that people are judged more on their actions rather than how they believe the universe was created. Because honestly, I don’t care if you’re an atheist or a devout believer. I just hope you are kind.

1 (1)Ali Berman is the author of Misdirected (Seven Stories Press), a novel that follows Ben, a fifteen-year-old atheist from Massachusetts who immediately becomes an outsider after moving to a conservative Christian town in Colorado. Ali is also the author of Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World (Hazelden). She works as a humane educator for HEART, helping to educate kids about human rights, animal protection and environmental ethics. Ali was born in England, grew up in New York, and now lives and writes in Portland, OR with her husband and two cats. Twitter: @alijberman


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  • JosephS

    Great article!

  • Jim Jones

    > His morals all come from one very specific place. The Bible.

    People say that but it isn’t true. Anyone who actually follows the bible, we lock them up for their crimes and presume they’re insane. Death for a shrimp cocktail? Or for shaving?

    Actual morals come from empathy. When people resort to the bible, they either use it as a cover for the nasty part of their nature by condemning others; or at best they forgive their enemies.

    Actual empathy is often easier. And if I ever have a moment of confusion I ask, “What would Fred Rogers do?” That clears it up right away.

  • Pete Eisenmann

    Great post. As a convert in my early 20’s, and a deep foray into evangelicalism as a professional in christian ministry for 20 years or so, then my de-conversion in recent years, it has been easier to track my moral compass as related to family values and social constructs (for me the Boy Scouts and it’s oath and law were very important) as well as an evolving of those values based on experience (stealing the comic book out of the drug store as a kid was met with returning it, apologizing, having a scary lecture by the pharmacist on the evils of stealing) etc. One of my essential frustrations as a church leader was the total disregard for ethics based on the “I’ll get forgiveness model” or “scriptural justification” model, “it’s in the word!” I brought a basic ethic into my religious life and exited with the same, still able to build on that in becoming more mutual in this journey.

  • Charlie Johnson

    There is a bit of irony there, as Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, but I get your point.

  • Ed. Kennedy

    Well said, we are vastly misunderstood…

  • Jim Jones

    Oh yes, but he never used it as a club to degrade other people – or to lie to them.

  • Jim Jones

    But if you knock on my door to tell me about Jesus – pretty sure I’m on a number of do not call lists now.

  • Mark Morss

    How annoying it would be to encounter someone who introduced himself with, “High, I’m Philpott, and I’m born again.” Belief and politics are two subjects best avoided in polite conversation. There’s no harm saying, “I’m an atheist” when it’s relevant, but introducing yourself with that is weird and likely to annoy.

  • Tim

    I’m much in the same boat about my lack of belief. I have a Flying Spaghetti Monster emblem on my car which is a conversation piece and it naturally steers things to religion and my antitheism. I have no problem suggesting that “not sharing in crudely archaic and ridiculous beliefs isn’t something to be ashamed about but rather something to be celebrated. We as atheistic persons are the next phase in human evolution”.We as atheists rely on facts, evidence, proofs, and reason to conduct ourselves in day-to-day life. We don’t rely on outdated fictional material that is forced down our throats from birth and how dare anyone ever question where we get our morality from. The same question could be thrown back at the theists in asking “without your faith, would you be a maniacal rapist and murderer?” with a particularly pointed follow-up of “atheism has not led a single person to act like that”. If they bring up Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as their apologist way of calling out atheism, an immediate counter of “Hitler was Christian, Stalin had the Russian Orthodox church at his command and was viewed as a god, and Pol Pot was a really fucked-up Buddhist” is all that needs to be said.Each day finds me more vocal about chastising religion because it does in fact poison everything.

  • theron

    Perhaps, but in the South, people bring up church all the time and even will pray at a business lunch. That’s nauseating. I don’t come out to everyone I meet but those who spend any amount of time with me understand my worldview, just as I know they’re a bunch of Christians. It’s fine. Most people can handle it.

  • starmom

    Which is why the first sentence in the essay states, “It’s >not< the first thing I say as I reach out to shake hands with someone new. “Hi. My name is Ali Berman and I’m an atheist.”

  • wanderer

    I just had a similar conversation about where I get my morals when someone found out I was an atheist.
    The thing is, I don’t think that person (who is a christian) *actually* gets her morals from the Bible either — at least not in totality. I think most everyone gets their morals from their parents, society, etc.
    For example, I don’t recall any place the Bible says white lies are okay, but honestly I think when push comes to shove most people think it’s okay to tell a white lie if it’s going to spare someone pain.
    That’s why I think it’s silly for christians to have the perspective that an atheist has no basis for morality.

  • Mark Morss

    Mea maxima culpa. But I would have said the same thing about general forwardness on this subject.

  • Mark Morss

    Oh sure, when others bring up their beliefs, it’s fair to tell them yours.

  • starmom

    Last Friday I ran to the store after work to grab something to throw on the grill, along with a couple other things. At checkout, the total was off by a lot, and I realized that the steak hadn’t scanned, so I pointed it out to the cashier who thanked me profusely and scanned it. The gal in line behind me said vehemently, ‘I’m glad there are still honest people in the world’. I responded that I thought most people tried to be, but since she brought it up, I wanted to mention that I am an atheist.

    The reason I said that was because so many xians (and others) are under the impression that atheists have no morals, and I had just unthinkingly displayed mine and was recognized for it. I thought of it as a teachable moment for the shoppers around me.

  • Mark Morss

    Way to go!

  • starmom

    Thanks!

  • Megan Ratts

    I have never been asked about which tooth fairy church I go to. I don’t get asked to participate in other’s Santa Claus rituals. And I’ve never been told I’m going to leprechaun hell for not believing in magical men dressed in green. But living in the deep south, I get asked about my church practices all the time. I have been stopped while biking with my kids to be invited to church. Then followed around when I politely declined the invite. Two days ago I had a man ask me to church in my driveway and when I told him I was a non-believer and he pressed me and I explained that I’m an atheist and what that is he spread his arms wide and turned around and asked me how I could see SPRING and not KNOW there was a divine creator.

    In some parts of the country, we don’t have the luxury of our non-belief being a non-issue. I’m so glad that there are people that don’t have to deal with these things and so much worse – my kid being taunted by others because he’s going to roast in hell, for example – but for those of us that do have to deal with it, having a more friendly faces to point to when atheism comes up is extremely important.