Atheism and Society (1997)
[ Traducción al Español / Spanish translation ]
Overview of contents
There are many atheist celebrities, including Marlon Brando (actor), George Carlin (comedian), Arthur C. Clarke (author), Michael Crichton (author), Richard Dawkins (author/biologist), Dr. Dean Edell (radio medical talk show host), Paul Edwards (philosopher), Antony Flew (philosopher), Billy Joel (musician), Michael Kinsley (editor/columnist/commentator), Paul Kurtz (philosopher), Richard Leakey (paleontologist/author), Michael Martin (philosopher), Kai Nielsen (author), James "The Amazing" Randi (conjurer/investigator/author), Ron Reagan, Jr. (talk host), J. Michael Straczinski (exec. producer of Babylon 5), and Teller (magician).
More information on celebrity atheists is on <URL:http://www.celebatheists.com/>.
Why do some atheists care so much about atheism?
Many atheists do not consider their lack of belief in god(s) any more important than their lack of belief in Invisible Pink Unicorns (IPUs). However, many other atheists are passionate and vocal about their atheism. They may feel strongly about their atheism for any number of reasons:
- They think atheism is true
- They find it interesting
- They want to protect the rights of fellow atheists
- They recently de-converted and it fills a void previously filled by religion
- They want to find good answers to questions about atheism
- They have been approached repeatedly by religionists who want to convert them
- They are concerned about attempts by religionists to write their beliefs and practices into law, and want to stop them
- They want others to experience the benefits of atheism
A common question among atheists, especially those who used to be theists, is whether or not to "come out" as atheists, or pretend to be a theist when around friends and family.
Some of the arguments given in favor of "coming out" include:
- Staying in the closet is an emotionally draining experience. Most of us feel bad about deliberately lying, and really bad about deliberately lying to our close friends, family and loved ones. But staying in the closet requires precisely that. This generates loads of guilt, and carrying around that kind of guilt is pretty unhealthy from an emotional point of view. Making matters worse, you have to expend a great deal of mental effort to maintain the facade, a task made even more complicated by the fact that you are attempting to fool those who know you best, and thus are the most difficult to fool.
- Staying in the closet tends to isolate you from the atheist community, and get you more involved with the theistic community than you might want to be. People naturally gravitate towards people who are like themselves. We tend to choose friends who share our interests, our values, and our beliefs. But if everybody thinks you are a theist, then atheists will tend to stay away, while theists will want to get closer to you. This is the exact opposite of what you want. By coming out, those around you who are atheists will be more likely to befriend you, providing you with much-needed emotional support. And in a society that is 90% theist, we need all the emotional support we can get.
- Staying in the closet steals away time. When you pretend to be a theist, it is inevitable that you will have to participate in theistic events such as going to church, attending prayer meetings and kinship groups, and the like. This sucks away time that you could be using for working, studying, playing or just sleeping in. Atheists know better than anybody that our time is finite, so why waste it practicing primitive superstitious rituals?
- You run the risk of being found out. If this happens, the people you are trying to fool will be far less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. If your spouse confessed to having an affair, you would be more likely to forgive your spouse than if you found out about it second-hand. By the same token, your friends and loved ones are far more likely to tolerate your atheism if you open about it than if they happen to find your copy of "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" when you're not around.
Try this simple thought experiment: Imagine telling your friends and loved ones that you are an atheist. Picture their reactions. Make it a worst case scenario. It's probably a scary scenario, isn't it? But if you are found out, their reactions will be even worse than what you've just imagined! Not only will they be angry at you for becoming an atheist, but they'll be angry at you for lying as well. (And unlike atheism, lying is a legitimate thing to be angry at.)
One other thing to keep in mind is that unless you only have a year or two left to live, you will be found out. Nobody can keep up that kind of facade for very long. In the long run, coming out will be significantly less straining than staying in.
- Coming out is a powerful way of promoting tolerance for atheists. Remember that your theistic friends and family have had their heads filled with stereotypes about atheists by their leaders and fellow theists. By coming out, you can show that these stereotypes are bull. Indeed, you may be the only atheist they know, and thus the only person capable of dispelling the stereotypes. And if they ever become interested in atheism themselves, they'll know who to turn to when it comes time to ask questions.
There are some people who stay in the closet because coming out could mean losing a job, or being kicked out of the house, or even being beaten or killed. Such people should probably stay in the closet, at least until they can get a new job, or find a home of their own, or move to a locale that isn't socially retarded. But even these people should come out eventually, after they have arranged things so that it is safe to do so. And those who stay in solely to avoid offending friends and family would be better served by coming out now. In the short run, it will be hell, but in the long run, it's the only way to go. The only real alternative is a lifetime of hypocrisy, self-loathing and fear.
In an attempt to discredit atheism, theists will sometimes claim "There are no atheists in foxholes." The purpose of this argument appears to be similar to that of fictitious atheist deathbed conversion stories (stories invented by theists claiming that famous atheists suddenly professed belief in God before their death). These arguments seem to imply that when atheists are faced with imminent death, many decide that they do not like the consequences of an atheistic worldview, and therefore will become theists just before their death.
However, much like the discredited atheist deathbed conversion stories, this argument is also incorrect. Joseph McCabe, in his Biographical Dictionary of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Freethinkers, lists several atheists who were in foxholes: Edmonde De Amicis, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Giuseppe Garibaldi, General Victoriano Huerta, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, The Marquis Marie Jean Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Marie De Layfayette, General Sir Charles James Napier, General Arthur Condorcet O'Connor, General Bernardo O'Higgins, Major-General Sir Henry Creswickm Bart Rawlinson, and Edward John Trelawny. Also, contemporary atheist philosophers Paul Kurtz (U.S. Army), Antony Flew (RAF), and Michael Martin (U.S. Marine Corps) were also in the armed forces at one time.
This can be an extremely sensitive topic, for which there is no single correct answer. However, anyone faced with this issue should take the following into consideration:
- Do you ever wish your significant other (SO) was an atheist?
- Do you ever wish you were a theist?
- Does your SO wish you were a theist?
- How "militant" are you about your atheism, and how does this affect your spouse?
- Do you join your SO in celebrating religious holidays and, if so, how do you behave?
- Do you accompany your SO to church and, if so, how do you behave?
- If you have or plan to have children, what kind of religious upbringing, if any, will they have?
- Are you willing to have a religious wedding ceremony?
- Does your SO want a religious wedding ceremony?
- Do you see your differing beliefs as an imperfection in your relationship or as something beneficial?
Most people (theists and atheists alike) agree that your success in a relationship will depend mostly on how closely you and your SO agree on the issues you each feel are most important. If neither of you feel strongly about religion, then don't worry. If you have basic fundamental differences, try to work them out first.