1/12/10

Why Atheists Must Speak Out

090418aspeakout.gifThis post was inspired by an intriguing discussion on one of the many local atheist listservs I'm on, the Central MS Atheist Meetup Group. There are some great folks in this group, and they always make me think.

I want to start by acknowledging that living in Mississippi is no picnic for an atheist. This is about as oppressively religious environment as one is likely to find in the U.S., and we face situations on a regular basis that are virtually unheard of in more secular regions of the country. It is commonplace for complete strangers to approach us and ask where we go to church and whether we would like to visit their church. Church/state violations abound, and our complaints are often met with, "We're in the South; what do you expect?" Most of us have lost friends simply for describing ourselves as non-religious, and many of us have been threatened with hell.

In such an environment, it is only natural that we would learn to keep our views on religion concealed. We dread the point in the conversation when the topic comes up. There is tremendous social pressure to lie, even if only by omission. We don't want to use the a-word because we fear many negative outcomes. Some of us know - or at least suspect - that disclosing our atheism might mean the loss of our job, social ostracization, vandalism, threats of harm to our families, and even physical assault.

What makes all of this even worse is that most of us know, at least on some level, that this is no way to live. We deserve better than a life ruled by fear, and we know damn well that it is our silence that perpetuates these circumstances. By refusing to express ourselves honestly, we give power to those who oppress us. We know this rationally, but it provides little comfort to the individual contemplating such a disclosure.

A Relationship Analogy

I'd like to suggest that we take a moment and forget about the broader social implications of speaking out. Forget about how keeping silent enables discrimination and bigotry to continue. Set all of those considerations aside for now. Instead, I want you to consider how communication works in an intimate relationship and what happens when it becomes less than open and honest. I find that this can be a powerful analogy to help us realize that our silence is not fair to anyone.

Partner A was raised to be very conservative when it comes to spending money. She places great importance on saving, budgeting carefully, and planning for the future. Partner B has no interest in any of this, has never understood it, and derives great pleasure from impulsive buying. Partner A knows this about Partner B and due to her own fears of abandonment decides to keep her own values around money to herself. She does not want to be perceived as a nag, and so she refuses to tell Partner B what she wants. The outcome is inevitable. Partner B continues on without knowing anything is wrong, while Partner A becomes increasingly resentful, unhappy, etc. In all likelihood, this relationship is doomed.

Who is at fault here, and how do we fix the situation? Partner A bears the bulk of the responsibility here because her silence deprives Partner B of even knowing that there is a problem. She is guessing as to what Partner B's reaction to her values would be, but she is not willing to enter into any sort of negotiation or problem-solving. She becomes resentful because she thinks her partner should somehow know what the problem is without being told. Partner A needs to be honest with Partner B and express herself openly.

To Thine Own Self Be True

I know this is a difficult lesson to grasp, at least emotionally, but we atheists are not being fair to ourselves or to our Christian neighbors by remaining silent. Nobody enjoys feeling like they must live a lie, and doing so can be expected to take a toll on us. The harder lesson here is that our silence deprives our Christian neighbors of any opportunity for growth, compromise, or reconciliation.

Like Partner A, we fear all sorts of unpleasantries in exchange for disclosing our atheism. We've had enough life experience to estimate the probabilities of some of these as being reasonably high. But also like Partner A, we do not know for sure. We may be pleasantly surprised with some of the responses we receive. But even more important, our silence prevents our Christian neighbors from ever having the chance to develop increased tolerance.

"I'm not religious," "I do not attend church," and "I'd rather not discuss religion with strangers" are all perfectly acceptable responses. One does not need to identify oneself as an atheist unless one wants to. However, doing so can provide some Christians with a powerful learning opportunity (i.e., they can no longer claim that they've never met an atheist).

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