Latest posts by Alexis Record (see all)
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I came out as an atheist on Openly Secular Day last April. It’s been nice to finally be honest about who I am and what I think, but it has led to some hard interactions with those from my former faith, as well as the culture at large. It’s a topic that can make people uncomfortable.
For many of my friends, I’m the only atheist they know. So when I came out publicly, they retreated to mental folders that consisted of stereotypes, memes, and polemical sermons on atheists. This led to interactions filled with awkwardness, accusations, or total avoidance. It was a learning curve for everyone.
Because of the relationships I’ve enjoyed with people of faith, especially in honor of them, I’ve chosen to communicate rather than remain silent about some of the more hurtful experiences I’ve had. Some of my experiences are so universal that when I saw a video listing 15 things not to say to atheists, I realized that I’d heard all 15 in the last few months! Here are nine ways I’ve experienced discrimination since coming out publicly as an atheist.
#1. Since coming out as an atheist I have had incorrect definitions of atheism placed on me.
First off the bat, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but I don’t worship Satan. This cute Buzzfeed video addresses how atheists get hit with this definition of atheism and just have to walk away. I was in slight shock the first time someone said this to me. Now I’m used to it.
Secondly, we don’t have “faith” or a different religion where we worship “nothing.” (Atheism is a religion like bald is a hairstyle or blank is a drawing.) We just share a view that God(s) are improbable. A family member confronted me with, “How can you know for certain that God isn’t real? That takes a lot of faith!” Like this family member, I was always told atheists were “100% certain God doesn’t exist” so it surprised me when not a single atheist I met held that definition. In reality, an atheist is anyone not convinced there’s enough evidence of God(s). An agnostic person is in the middle of the fence and believes there’s no possible way to know one way or the other. Atheists merely lean (either a little or a lot) to one side of that fence.
#2. Since coming out as an atheist I have rarely been able to tell my own story.
I was troubled that there was no demonstrable evidence to back up my religious beliefs, and eventually I came to a different conclusion. That is the crux of my entire deconversion. Yet I have been told multiple times that I’m not really an atheist, or that I was never really a Christian, or that I hate God, that I must hate America too, that I just want a license to sin, that something bad must have happened to me, that I’m foolish, that I’m selfish, that I must be incredibly sad, and that this is just a phase I’m going through. I wasn’t used to people arguing with me over my own identity since that’s not something I ever experienced when I was a Christian. And of course none of the above are true, but out of all of them, the first one–a complete denial of my atheist label by people ready to hand me a “lapsed Christian” label instead–is the most grating. Many take Romans 1 to say that there’s no such thing as an atheist since everyone believes in God “deep down.” That’s not only wrong, it turns people like me from “unconvinced” to “apostates.” It’s incredibly invalidating and hurtful that so many of my friends have implied I’m either stupid, or at the very least that my motivations for not believing are highly suspect.
#3. Since coming out as an atheist I have not been able to talk about discrimination against atheists in America without hearing how atheists persecute Christians “just as much.”
I’ve covered this in my last two “Christian Privilege” blog posts, but there’s simply no evidence that an atheist minority (3% of US population) persecutes the Christian majority (70% of US population). Just like with racism or sexism, there can be some personal examples of atheists being bad to believers, but atheists lack the political or institutional power to persecute Christians. Let’s get one single openly atheist representative in Congress or the House of Representatives before we accuse atheists of any widespread anti-Christian conspiracies.
#4. Before coming out as an atheist I enjoyed being seen as a good person, but now I have been accused of having no morals.
How can I have morals without a belief in God since morality and religion are intertwined? This is the top question I get from religious family and friends despite study after study debunking this myth. A recent study out of Manchester University shows that religious decline has not come with a corresponding moral decline. If morality were solely a religious concept, or had a strong correlation to religious belief, then we would expect to see some sort of hit to morality in the last several years as the percentage of non-believers has increased. Instead we see the exact opposite.
Atheists actually make up an extremely low percentage of the prison population (less than a tenth of one percent), have lower divorce rates than religious Americans, and have greater levels of happiness worldwide. Studies show that we tend to be more tolerant and intelligent, and less racist and selfish. Other studies show we are not more angry than other people (the “angry atheist” stereotype) and we are just as mentally healthy as those with religious beliefs (the “miserable atheist” stereotype). While all of that is not proof atheists are morally superior, it certainly disproves the opposite!
#5. Since coming out as an atheist I’ve been told to be quiet about it.
The worst thing I can do in most situations with a believer is to say these four words: “Actually, I’m an atheist.”
In my last post I talked about being forced into group prayers around the holidays by people who knew I was an atheist. I was told to be considerate of those who believe in prayer who are having trouble with my atheism. In other words, being silent was considered the least I could do for the crime of leaving the faith. And most often I’m the one asked to make accommodations, not the reverse. If I don’t, I’m the bad one.
Also lately I’ve seen this sentiment going around my corner of the Internet:
But what is kindness? If you brought your sick vegan friend a meal of pork, would you expect a thank you? Kindness, to me, is treating others the way they want to be treated. If an atheist asks you not to say you’re praying for them, don’t. You don’t know how that could be triggering them. It’s just as easy to go pray for them in your room with the door closed.
#6. When I was a Christian I could rely on my culture to portray me positively in television and film. As an atheist? Ha!
I discovered many of my acquaintances got their idea of what atheism was from horrible portrayals of atheists in media. One such atrocity was the film God’s Not Dead which depicts atheists as miserable, predatory, selfish, threatening, angry, and immoral. It’s actually one of the most hateful misrepresentations of a group of people I’ve yet encountered, yet dozens of my friends posted “God’s Not Dead” on Facebook as part of a sharing campaign started by the film.
#7. When I was a Christian I felt safe to express myself, but now I am more cautious.
When a religious person finds out I’m an atheist online, it often leads to scary hostility on their end. Certain biblical verses portray atheists as abominable fools (Psalm 14), who deserve to be cast into fire in the New Testament, and be put to death in the Old Testament. (Those are the happy verses I think of when I find a Bible in my hotel room.) These experiences with random anger, accusation-slinging, and online abuse have slowly chipped away at my feelings of safety. I briefly discussed the need to prioritize self-care in my piece on being an atheist at Christmastime, and I’m already bracing for the backlash that will accompany this piece.
My fear is not out of place. Last month a person was shot and killed for being an atheist. This did not happen in Bangladesh, where a number of atheist bloggers have recently been murdered, but it happened a few miles away in Arizona. This month a man with a disability in Kentucky was beaten in his own home with his own cane for saying he didn’t believe in God. Hundreds of other religiously-motivated crimes against people (documented in this enormous list) were reported in 2015.
#8. Before coming out as an atheist I didn’t worry about my adoption being disrupted or not being able to adopt.
I’m a member of the adoption community, so discrimination in this area is hugely important to me. Due to a misunderstanding of atheists in our culture, many birth mothers do not choose loving atheist adopting families that they otherwise may have. Laws have even been passed that allow discrimination against atheists wanting to adopt.
I can’t reiterate enough how harmful it is to leave children in orphanages. It can do irreversible damage, like it did with my son. Yet some Christian organizations have halted international adoptions (out of orphanages) based on the belief that it’s better for a child to remain an orphan than grow up in a non-Christian or homosexual household.
#9. After coming out as an atheist I have worried how it will affect my job prospects.
I’m aware that if I disclose my atheism in a job interview then I lower my chances of getting hired. In contrast, during my Christian days I once got a job because I listed volunteer work at my church in my resume. I was hired with a wink and a nod, as well as an understanding that because of my religious beliefs I would be more ethical in my work dealings. I was utilizing the benefit of being instantly trusted, and the odds were in my favor of having a Christian employer or coworkers. Many people in my former church only hired other members of the church or those who had Christian symbols on their business cards. It was a kind of extended nepotism we enjoyed.
After coming out as an atheist I am happier and more peaceful.
Despite all of the above, there are so many positive aspects to my atheism. I shed a worldview that I found harmful to myself and others. I’ve had a more open mind towards science, other cultures, new ideas, and different people’s beliefs. I have no more cognitive dissonance. I no longer see myself as inferior to anyone else. I no longer have to defend problematic Bible verses. I can embrace LGBTQUIA+ people. There is no more pressure to give to a church, and I can now give directly to those in need. I can take in a foster kid with different beliefs than me without trying to convert her. I no longer have guilt when bad things happened after not praying “hard enough” over them. I can now fully embrace science!
While atheism was not something I went looking for, and not something I would have chosen, I’m glad I’m here. Despite the new challenges, I’ll happily take the label of atheist.
Although I much prefer humanist.
Or even better: person.