Friday, August 9, 2013

Atheists, learn from the gays.

I sometimes get flak for being such an outspoken atheist. What's weird is that I seem to get it more from my fellow nonbelievers more than I get it from my theist friends. Many of them are just as disdainful of religion as I am, but somehow I get accused of being just like religious fundamentalist preachers -  only substitute religion with atheism. I find this rather odd. What exactly do I do? I write blog posts, sometimes share funny atheist memes on Facebook, and I go into buses and trains and tell the people about how there is no God.

Actually, I don't do the last one. With the other two, my audience isn't a captive one. They can either choose not to read my blog, or they can de-friend and/or ignore me on Facebook. (The second one has happened a couple of times, but I seem to have a ridiculous amount of Christian friends - including a couple of pastors - who I met via Facebook. Either they're gluttons for punishment or I'm not as bad as some of my fellow atheists would make me out to be.)

It's not that I don't have the opportunity to speak to a captive audience. I'm a public school teacher, and I actually teach a unit on The Bible with my seniors. When I do my lessons, I tell them that I'm an atheist and that anybody who believes in The Bible is stupid.

Again, just kidding about the last part. I do tell them that I'm an atheist. I do this in the interest of full disclosure just in case they detect some sort of a bias in a lesson where I try to be as neutral as possible. A funny aside is that last year, I showed a documentary on the historical Jesus to go along with it. My last question on the documentary asked them what they thought of it and whether they thought it was biased in one direction or the other. The majority of students felt it was even-handed. A couple of them thought it was preachy, and a couple of them thought that it was anti-Jesus. That's funny enough, but even more amusing was when I read one girl's comments that went along the lines of, "I was raised with Catholicism, but this is making me think that the whole thing is nonsense." Another girl, whose paper was the very next one in the stack, read, "I was raised Catholic, but I haven't given it much thought about it. This documentary makes me want to revisit my faith."

Make of it what you will, but I think it's safe to say that if I'm pushing atheism on my students, I really suck at it.

With all this though, I'm still an incredibly self-critical person, and I take these comments to heart and worry about them far more than I probably should. One of my friends even described me as a "virulent" atheist. The last time I talked to him, I had gone over it in my head enough to take issue with it. My basic thought is this: what would I think of a Christian who does the same thing as me? In other words, would I think that a Christian is being obnoxious by writing a blog, sharing Christian memes, and being unapologetically open about his faith? Well, that happens to describe some of my friends, so obviously I don't find that to be too objectionable. The only time I'll take issue with them is when they post something erroneous (like how supposedly you can't read The Bible in public school...even though you can).

After some discussion, I was accused of being a "flamboyant" atheist. In other words, I'm like the openly gay guy who makes no effort to hide his sexuality and eagerly shares messages of tolerance. This made me think of a guy who graduated from high school with me. Soon after the Facebook page for the 20 year reunion went up, he posted a message asking who else had come out of the closet since graduation. His photo was one with him and his partner, and he posted about how long they had been together and how happy they were. I remember thinking that was really cool of him. I loved how out there he was, completely unashamed due to the fact that he had nothing to be ashamed of.

So, am I a flamboyant atheist? Yeah. I'll own that.

And this is where you, my fellow atheists, come in. I've written before that I wish that more atheists would be comfortable with the word "atheist". It's strange because you can actually get a person to admit that he or she doesn't believe in any gods, yet they simply won't use that word. Oftentimes the complaint is that they don't like labels, as people attach so much baggage to them. I understand this, but at the same time, I think that when you refuse to use a simple word that simply describes your stance on theism, you're contributing to the baggage that the word has. It's kind of like how Voldemort seemed even scarier when people refused his name, but his name lost a lot of its power when Harry finally became comfortable using it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that all nonbelievers should be flamboyant atheists like me. I'm not telling you to write a blog. I'm not telling you to post memes. Shoot, you don't EVER have to talk about it. However, you shouldn't hide it from people either. In other words, be like the lady who was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer after the tornado in Oklahoma. When he asked if she "thanked the Lord" she informed him that she was an atheist. I absolutely love that moment. She had a smile on her face, and she didn't act like she was outraged for him bringing up God. She was just being honest and clear.

What I'm saying is that religious people need to know that we're out there and...GASP! they probably even genuinely like some of us! Most of us are friendly, and we care about the same sorts of things that they do when it comes to just getting by in life from day to day.

I'll admit that most of my interactions with my Christian friends started off with us debating. That's pretty much tapered off. Now we tend to talk more about our kids, cooking, comic books, whatever. Some people have told me that my debates with Christians are a waste of time because I'll never convince them of anything. Setting aside the fact that I don't believe that, simply considering the number of atheists who were former believers, it still isn't a waste. I know that some of them have had some notions about what being an atheist meant, and I know that many of those notions have been eradicated. I even heard a story about how one of them had her church pray for her because she was going to meet "an atheist" (me) in person! Gasp! I'm sure they all find that to be just as amusing as I do now that they know a bit more about the rest of my personality. In fact, I get teased by some of them for being a "softie" more than I ever do for being a nonbeliever. (Yeah, I'll own the being a softie thing.)

I've read more than once that a major factor in why so many Americans have changed their minds about gay marriage over the past few years is due to the fact that so many more gay people have come out of the closet. This has forced many of us to realize that there are a lot more of them out there than we realized. Even more importantly, we learn that they're really not all that different from everybody else and that they're our friends.

The same thing is slowly happening with atheists, as the last article I read on the subject shows that more Americans are willing to vote for an openly atheist candidate for President than ever before. I don't see this turning around, and the reason why is that while theists are still clearly in the majority, fewer and fewer of them view atheists as a threat.

And this is why more nonbelievers need to embrace the word. Yes, the word has a lot of baggage. But that can change, and if more people use it to simply describe their feelings on the existence of a god, then it's eventually going to become as banal an expression as saying that you're left-handed.

I remember when I took a class with my wife on parenting, a woman shared her story about some tough times that her daughter was going through. She couldn't figure out what was wrong, and eventually her daughter tearfully revealed to her that she was a lesbian. The woman's reaction was priceless. "She told me that she was a lesbian, and I said to her, 'Oh! Is that all?'"

Right now, there are a lot of young people who are afraid to tell their parents that they don't share their religious beliefs. It might seem like a small thing for my fellow nonbelievers to use the word atheist to describe themselves, but I truly believe that the more of us who do it, the more parents will respond in the same way: "An atheist? Is that all?"


Suede Fredrick said...

You are right when you way that the word 'Atheist' has a lot of baggage. When I had admitted to being an atheist, one of my best friends said he didn't like the sound of it. Later I was informed that he said that when he thinks of an atheist, he thinks of bad people.

I have some friends who are afraid to tell thier families because they are very religious. It gets worse when thinking of how thier grandparents would react (very religious generation). They would just rather let them die happy thinking they were christians.

Glenn Rittenhouse said...

i am an atheist. i am open about it, and unafraid to say so to anyone. however, i think sam harris has a point, that there is no name for people that do not believe in astrology, or numerology, or acupuncture, or pick your baseless pseudoscience. we shouldn't have to NEED a name for not believing in the unbelievable.

i am also a firm believer in planting seeds. i dont try to convince people of anything normally. i simply ask open ended questions, then leave them to think about them. this works best with children that dont quite yet have years of indoctrination.

my wife is a preacher's daughter, and while she is a believer, she is only mildly so. our approach with our son has always been to leave him alone. she doesnt force him to go to church unless he wants to, and i dont lecture him on evolution. he comes to us with questions, and we both answer as honestly as we can, and i find that over the years, her answers are much closer to mine than mine to hers. time, and open ended questions are powerful tools.

Ingrid Johnson said...

In all fairness towards believers, the reason they want you to believe is that they believe you will be saved in the next life. Atheists don't care what happens to you or to themselves after they die.
Why would anyone think Atheist are bad people? Some of the worst people in history and in the present call themselves Christians. Most are hypocrites.
I call myself a Christian, my mother was an Atheist, the man I live with is one and so is my favorite son.

Lance Johnson said...

"Why would anyone think Atheist are bad people?"

A lot of people think that atheism is synonymous with being a bad person. They tend to feel differently when they actually know some atheists.

And I wouldn't say that atheists "don't care" about what happens after you die. They just don't believe the stories about it that religions would have us believe.

Robert Simon said...

Lance, it's the same reason people believe Catholics worship statues, worship bread, and are the puppets of some papal mind controlling device.

I was questioned endlessly about my Grandfather's family bible (he's Lutheran) by his home care workers because it was written in German (the devil's tongue) and had horrifying images in it that made the woodcut illustrations of Grimm's fairy tales look like rough drafts for The Lion King.

For every person who has made their religion their identity...their "thing", there are dozens who feel no need to bring it up (outside of explaining the occasional cheese pizza on Friday because of the aforementioned Papist mind rays). I imagine that being "that flamboyantly atheist guy" is barely a step up from being "Fedora and Monocle guy". At what point does the typical "Hot Topic Atheist" become just as annoying and cartoonish as the "Self Righteous Fundie Dude"?

Lance Johnson said...

"At what point does the typical 'Hot Topic Atheist' become just as annoying and cartoonish as the 'Self Righteous Fundie Dude'?"

When he keeps bringing it up when it's not the topic of conversation and refuses to back down when nobody's listening.