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Activism, Atheism

The Politics of Being “Out”

This is the third installment in my series inspired by the show “30 Days.”  I want to spend some time thinking aloud about what it means to be an “out atheist.”  As recent comments have demonstrated, there are sharp differences of opinion about what is appropriate, useful, and even scientifically accurate in terms of social behavior for atheists.  There’s also a fairly serious debate in the atheist blogosphere about whether or not we should be “unapologetic” or “in your face,” and what either of those terms even mean.

I’ll just set out my opinion from the beginning:  I agree with the “unapologetic atheist” approach.  In general, I think being unapologetic means several things.

  • First and foremost, being unapologetic means not hiding disbelief.  My general rule of thumb says that it is appropriate to mention my atheism anytime it would be appropriate for a Christian to mention their belief.
  • Second, I believe being unapologetic means standing up for yourself when you are being discriminated against or otherwise marginalized.  This doesn’t mean being a jerk or reactionary.  It means pointing out discrimination and marginalization when it happens.  In the episode of 30 Days, it was obvious that Tracy (the Christian wife) had never thought about what it felt like to be an atheist.  When she heard polite stories of discrimination, the change in her emotions was obvious.
  • I’m not much of a T-shirt or jewelry kind of guy, but I believe it’s perfectly appropriate to wear clothes and jewelry proclaiming atheism.  Of course, rude is rude whether it’s atheist or Christian, and I do believe in civility.  A shirt that said, “Christians are too stupid to be atheist” would just be rude.

If you do all these things, Christians will tell you you’re being “In your face” or “militant.”  They’re wrong, and it’s ok to politely point that out.  Especially if they’re wearing a cross necklace.  This is one of those tricky spots where there’s just going to have to be some social conflict.  The accusations of militancy or social inappropriateness are really mechanisms for social control.  It’s the way Christians have attempted to keep us silent.  It’s emotional manipulation.

Now please notice that all of these things can be done with a calm indoor voice, and there’s really no reason to ever “confront” anyone who hasn’t confronted you first.  Even if you are confronted, it’s still ok to keep your cool and be the bigger person.  This, I think, is the most powerful tool we have in our attempt to integrate into American society.  One of the most common accusations leveled against atheists is that we’re too angry.  Of course, we have lots of good reasons for being angry, but that’s beside the point.  During racial integration, blacks had lots of reasons to be angry, too, but some of the most effective (and emotionally appealing) demonstrations were completely peaceful.  We would do very well to emulate things that have already worked.

Remember that any “movement” is really a lot of individuals all thinking and doing the same things.  The Christian movement believes atheists are angry malcontents who can’t live peacefully in society.  If we do the things I’m suggesting, they’re going to keep saying that for a while.  Maybe a long time.  But if we consistently behave differently than their meme, it will eventually start to break down.  Women like Tracy will begin speaking up for us.  It will become emotionally untenable for many Christians to keep calling us names when it’s socially obvious that we’re not monsters.

The key to the whole thing is numbers.  We need as many atheists as we can get to simply live openly as atheists.  The beauty of this (if it happens) is that most of these folks really are very nice people who aren’t confrontational.  At this time, most Christians’ perceptions of atheists and atheism comes from the internet and books.  This gives them a very skewed picture of atheism in America, since 99.9% of atheists have never bothered to get in anybody’s face about it.

That’s the real catch-22, isn’t it?  They’re totally wrong about us, but they’d never know it because all they ever see is the outliers who finally got fed up with things and stood up for themselves.  Most atheists are exactly like most Christians.  They don’t want to get into politics or upset the boat.

But the unfortunate truth is that anytime I’ve discovered a closet atheist, a little coaxing brings out the truth — they wish they didn’t live in a society where they have to be silent in order to be accepted.

The first part of resolving this dilemma is in convincing our fellow atheists that it’s not inappropriate or rude for them to be out.  Theists have created an environment where most people believe religion shouldn’t be questioned or challenged, and that anyone who does so is gauche.  In doing so, they’ve extended the definitions of “question” and “challenge”  to pretty much any display of disagreement whatsoever.

But the evidence just doesn’t bear that out.  While we may disagree with a lot of things we see in public, we accept a lot of differences of opinion.  Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob?  Obama or Rush?  Recycle or not?  Pot or not?  Smoking in public or not?  Breastfeeding in public or not?  We have lots of issues that divide people, but religion is nearly unique in its desire to completely silence any dissent.  (I need to point out that the Republican attempt to silence Democrats — and everybody else who disagrees with them — is an example of the same kind of behavior, and it’s no secret that the Republican Party has essentially merged with the Christian Evangelical/Fundamentalist movement.)

The reason it’s considered socially inappropriate to display atheism is not because of anything atheists are doing.  It’s because of how Christians react to such displays! Let me say that again.  The people who are being rude and socially inappropriate are the Christians.  They’re acting like petulant children when someone expresses an opinion different from theirs.

Regardless of the social climate, we atheists have the legal and social right to live “out.”  If anyone gets upset about it, it is a problem with them, not a problem with us. So long as there are only a few of us living out, it will be very difficult to win any social acceptance, but as I’ve said before, there are more atheists in the U.S. than blacks or gays.  We have the numbers.  We just need participation in the daunting task of simply being who we are.



2 thoughts on “The Politics of Being “Out”

  1. Excellent post again Hamby. I’ll be reposting this on my fb page for sure!

    Posted by Jessica Anderson | March 20, 2010, 9:49 am
  2. I hereby unapologetically set forth my pet peeve for the use of the phrase “rule of thumb”. However, I rank it with Bless You when someone sneezes. I am trying to stop being a petulant child about it! But, for me, it relates to the rule that you can beat your wife with a stick no larger than your thumb. Wiki has discredited that myth for me – but it still gets stuck in my craw… Life long beliefs are hard to toss out even when evidence to the contrary is presented.

    Which is why Hamby’s suggestion that we live openly as normal people, who are also atheists, is really the best solution to a better image of the atheist as a group. We have the numbers…I hope we have the time. AND, perhaps most importantly, the inclination to BE NICE and normal.

    Hamby: “They’re acting like petulant children when someone expresses an opinion different from theirs.”
    This is true to some extent, but have you seen the reverse of that coin? I have a friend who is a fundamental Xian and Hamby you have taken the opportunity to be nice to him in a posting on FaceBook. This same xian fellow joined in on a discussion on my FB wall with 2 or 3 not as nice atheists. NO ONE was calling names, but the tone was vehement – a little too forceful… My atheist friends were not pouting children, they were like playground bullies.

    I wanted to relate this because it is hard to refrain from shouting from the rooftops when one believes they are correct and misunderstood. But it exactly HERE that we need to refrain. Being correct and calming stating and defending that position is one thing – and a good thing. However, when the atheist comes at the argument already on the defensive, things become a bit shrill. It was hard to listen to and in effect, I found myself sympathizing with my friend. Anyone who is on the fence with belief or non-belief would certainly walk away with ideas negative to the purpose of normalizing atheists and solidifying “angry atheist” ideas.

    “Someone is finally listening! LETS TALK!”
    FaceBook allows for a certain anonymity to over-state, as well as an inability to rely on body language and voice tone. I doubt that a face to face encounter would bring the same ramifications – but would not allow the same “coverage” of the idea. (coverage is not the word I want…). This blog is not likely being read by xians – and a coffee house chat would be limited by the number of chairs at the table.

    Let’s be “outted” and let’s talk. Let us not be apologetic and let us wear necklaces with the letter A. We cannot prove a negative – there is no god – we can only prove that we are normal people – nice normal people. I hope we can keep our excitement to be heard to a bubbly calm so that we do not look like the Teabaggers screaming N**** and F**** on national television.

    They are ready to use whatever ammunition we give them, be it a hand shake, a pebble or an public hanging.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 21, 2010, 6:49 pm

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