The atheist closet
Imagination is an important tool for understanding others.
Ever consider what it would be like to live in the closet? Suppose you were gay (some won’t have to suppose) and a majority of people around you thought that because of that you were immoral or evil. Just to get along, you disguise any hint in your actions or words that might tip anyone off. You’re conscious of every word and gesture, hiding even from people in the same house. At work you have to be careful. In your heart, you know you’re a good person but you hear talk…
All around you people are relaxed and at-ease with their heterosexuality. They crack jokes, kiss in public, hold hands, talk about their kids. Pictures of their partners adorn their desks and wallets. You can’t have any of that. You wish you could just relax and be yourself.
A few years ago I wrote an essay comparing the gay closet and the atheist closet. It rattled my mother so badly she stopped reading my website! She was actually afraid I’d be fired for being an atheist and said I should take the essay off my website. (In fact I am lucky to work for very fair-minded people). But occasionally I do read of atheists hitting reprisals in the workplace.
Then last week I found a new blog, Atheist Exposed, about a woman who lives in the South (!) and has come out of the atheist closet in her workplace. She inspired me to dig up the essay and re-post it here on my blog.
It’s time atheists came out of the closet
Living in the closet is a lot harder than it sounds.
I guess I knew all along, but ten years ago, I admitted it to myself. There’s something about me that I have basically hidden from some of my closest friends, some family members, and my co-workers for over a decade. I guess I’m afraid people just wouldn’t react to me the same way if they knew. It’s sort of a taboo topic, though in recent years, more people are living openly.
Even after I “became a Christian” in high school, I knew something was wrong. But I was determined to overcome my doubts; I studied for the ministry in college. After graduating, I got married and “moved to Normal” (Normal, Illinois, that is.)
I struggled inside, trying to fit in. I studied hard, attending church and taking part in committees and worship services. I wrote articles and letters. I felt like it was all on borrowed time. No one knew! Occasionally, my wife would suspect.
And oh, yes, I prayed.
Finally I admitted it to myself, and came out to one of my best friends from college. It didn’t go well. He was grieved and distressed, and so was I. But there was no turning back. It felt like an amputation, to cut off an assumption about myself that had always been there: I no longer believed in God.
The preceding paragraphs sound as if I were gay, but I’m not. Gays and atheists have a lot in common, though – we’re often lumped together by conservative elements, blamed for every kind of problem in society, even discriminated against. People in both groups learn not to ask, not to tell, and feel the burden of constant pretending. And just like a gay person, I have no choice in the way I am.
How I got this way:
Back in the ‘70’s, I went to a good Christian liberal-arts college in East Tennessee, receiving a strong general undergraduate education with a major in Bible and a double minor in history and psychology. My goal was to enter the ministry and eventually to enroll in divinity school.
I was popular in church. I’m good at public speaking. People found me inspirational. But faith was a struggle for me back then, and it only became more difficult until I eventually realized I didn’t believe in God at all. This admission was an “agonizing reappraisal” because I’d invested so much in the Christian faith.
In the following years I stopped going to church, and simply kept quiet about it. In other words, I was “in the closet.” At first this seemed like a perfectly acceptable solution. I have nothing against anyone for having religious beliefs, and there’s nothing to be gained by arguing with them over it.
Why come out of the closet?
But a lie of omission is still a lie. Coming out to my friends from college (of whom two are working ministers) was extremely difficult. I could tell they were hurt and they are worried about me. To their pain, I have no answer except that I wish I were not the cause.
Leaving Christianity was excruciating for me because I had invested so much in it – a college major, 20+ years of my life, and my own credibility. But now I am an atheist, or more specifically, a humanist who simply does not believe in God. This poses a different set of challenges from pretending to be Christian.
In the larger context of a society where atheists feel compelled to silence, it’s important to speak out. An atheist is not less of a human being, is not a priori an evil person, and should not have to live with discrimination.
Remaining in the closet allows other people’s misconceptions and prejudices to exist unchallenged, and that hurts everyone. Once the truth becomes widely known, there will still be people who will hate or fear atheists (or gays, or any other minority) but at least let them do so honestly and not from misinformation.
Life in a religious society
In our society you are assumed religious until proved otherwise, and religion is everywhere. Not just “In God We Trust” on our money, or the ever-present “God bless you” when you sneeze, but prayers before Congressional sessions, judges defending old Cecil B. De-Mille 10-commandments’ monuments, tax-subsidized churches (exemption=subsidy), bumper stickers, jewelry, screen-savers, religion-based science policy, and so on.
Recently I was in another person’s office and saw a printed homily about the 9-11 attacks, which concluded at the end; “Without God, life would be hopeless.” The person certainly had a right to express themselves in their own office but it says something about their perspective to dismiss the lives of so many people as “hopeless.” At minimum it’s a poor way to begin any dialog.
Prejudice may change its object, but not its character. Many very nice people believe some quite vicious stereotypes about atheists. Politicians who wrap themselves in a religion-soaked flag can always score points by blaming society’s ills on atheists, and some of the rhetoric is frightening.
Because of prejudice, being an atheist practically closes the option of high public office. It’s getting more problematic to discriminate against gays but apparently atheists are still fair game: Bush Sr. even said atheists could not be patriots and should not be citizens.
Many atheists are angry because of attitudes they have encountered. You can find any number of websites hotly denouncing religion. I’m not too fond of the religion scenario myself, because it has held the human race back from solving some of its worst problems. But anger isn’t usually very constructive.
Does that mean I have an obligation to try to “convert” my Christian friends? I don’t think so. Evangelism is a Christian imperative, not an atheist one. I’m not forcing my atheism on them, nor asking them to keep silent about their Christianity. We need not respect each other’s beliefs, but let us respect each other.
Respect in this context does not mean agreement or assent, but disavowal of stereotype. For discrimination on the basis of stereotype says; “you are not a person.” It is the ugly equivalent of black-face statuary or vicious ethnic jokes.
What is atheism?
Atheism is the lack of any belief in god. There are atheists who are sure there is no god, others who are sure it is not possible to be sure. But there are hundreds of things that atheism is not.
One person “congratulated” me for “not leading the little ones astray,” but I have to answer, “Don’t get too comfortable, there.” Religion has been the proximate cause of centuries of bloodshed and the convenient excuse for untold volumes in the story of injustice. Maybe I should be making religion work a little harder for its converts.
One dear woman told me, “You ought to be thinking about where you will spend eternity!” There’s material for a long article in that statement alone – about volitional versus nonvolitional belief, about good intentions, etc. Briefly, deciding what to believe based on some personal benefit of that belief is dishonest, and requires a dishonest god. As C.S. Lewis said (in the malevolent voice of Screwtape), “You see the little rift? Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”
Of course, the nice woman didn’t stop to think, that as a former minister who became an atheist, I had probably thought about eternity a lot more than she has. I have read the Bible closely, several times in different versions, underlining passages and writing comments in the margins. I have studied commentaries and histories. I tutored biblical Greek in college, and I have translated parts of the New Testament from the original language. (So lay off on the Bible quotes, OK?)
If it turns out the theists are right, and there is a God, I hope she is truly merciful, because it would be cruel to condemn someone for failure to believe, when belief is impossible. And if God is cruel, then she isn’t the god portrayed in the Bible, at all. Or come to think of it, maybe she is.
George Wiman, July 2005