Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is it Our Duty to Come Out as Atheists?

I'm sure many of you know it, but just to set the stage for my discussion of this topic, last week was 'A' Week. Atheists have been encouraged to set their Facebook (and other social profile, I suppose) picture to the scarlet 'A' -- or, in a twist on the concept that I personally prefer, to take a picture of themselves smiling with a small sign saying that they are an atheist, and use that for their profile picture.

'A' Week is a strategy which I highly support.

'A' Week is an event in which I do not participate.

What gives?

Coming out of the closet as an atheist (or agnostic, humanist, nontheist, antitheist, nonbeliever, freethinker, skeptic, or whatever) is easy for some people, and less so for others (yes, I know, I am to be lauded as Captain Obvious henceforth). 'A' Week has the potential make the process easier by providing support and a visible in-group for those participating -- without this, an out atheist may feel like more of an outsider, and may be subject to more discrimination by those who don't realize that atheists aren't uncommon, evil baby-eaters. A contingent of visibly out atheists increases the visibility of the movement, and connecting a person to the big scary label can decrease the negativity that the public associates with atheism.

All this combines to make atheism more accepted in society, which makes it easier for more atheists to come out, which feeds back into the cycle.

Hopefully, one day, it won't be a terrifying thing for anyone to come out as an atheist. Unfortunately, we're not there yet.

While, ideally, everyone would participate in 'A' Week, if everyone did, there would really be a lot less of a point to it. I'm not saying that it would lose all value, but if everyone who didn't believe in a deity felt comfortable admitting it, we'd be a hell of a lot closer to 'winning' this battle.

As it stands, not everyone can come out as publicly as we'd like. I'm one of those people. I'm an outspoken atheist when it comes to friends or strangers, but my family takes serious issue with my lack of belief. My mother has made it quite clear that under no circumstances am I to let my extended family find out about my lack of faith. I interpret this as concern for how she feels it will reflect on her and my father's parenting skills, and because my parents have a closer relationship with my extended family than I do, I have decided to respect my mother's request. To be entirely fair, I'm also a bit terrified of what she would do if I didn't, and of my paternal family's likely reaction to the revelation that, hey, I don't subscribe to their Catholic belief system anymore.

All in all, though, I would be willing to out myself to my extended family and damn the consequences to myself, but I am not willing to drag my parents (or my brother and sister) down with me against their will. It would just be impolite, and at this point in my life, I am trying more to salvage my relationship with my immediate family than to stress it further. I suppose it is a question of principles and priorities.

Regardless of my reasoning for not participating in 'A' Week, though, I feel guilty for shirking what I see as almost my duty as a confident atheist. I think that the message is important. I know how hard it is to be alone and struggling with disbelief, how terrifying it feels to know that literally everyone you know would disapprove of your disbelief, the fear of being disowned by your family and shunned by the community. I know that freedom from religion is not something we can take for granted. And I want to help; I want to be raising awareness, telling people that, hey, I'm really not a bad person just because I don't believe in gods, that I am perfectly capable -- perhaps moreso -- of living a moral life.

These are messages that we need to be sending. We need to be seen and heard and accepted. We're a part of this world, too, and because it's the only world we believe in, it's probably even more important to us than to religious believers.

But some of us, for one reason or another, cannot shout these words to the world in the same way. I know that I can't, and that fact really does hurt me. But 'A' Week is not the only way. There are other things we can do.

National Ask an Atheist Day is coming up. I'm participating in that -- in fact, I'm organizing the booth on my campus.

There are local groups all over the place; I'm running for office in the student/community group I belong to, Free@VT.

The internet is full of atheist blogs, and blogs on every faith. I comment, and I post my own opinions here.

We can write to our political representatives, to protect our right to be free from religion. We can attend protests and rallies and conventions. We can sign petitions and donate funds. We can talk to people we know, or to strangers on the bus or online. We can be visible in some places, even if we need to stay invisible in others.

I believe that it is our duty to come out as atheists... But I also believe that is our duty as people to protect ourselves and those we love. In some cases, that duty precludes the first. In some places, it's not safe to be an atheist, or even to be associated with one. In some situations, atheists and those they know can face severe social sanctions. It is up to us as rational, moral individuals to assess our situations, and to decide whether a drop in the bucket is worth the risk to ourselves and those we know.

We need all the drops we can get, but sometimes, it's better to wait, and in the meantime, there are other ways to contribute.

Even if you can't, or just won't come out as an atheist and participate in things like 'A' Week, don't abandon the movement. Don't think that you can't help. Even if all you do is comment anonymously online, your voice is of value. You're one more person who doesn't think of us as the other, as the enemy, as amoral or evil or wrong.

Knowing that you're there gives us strength. Hopefully, we can give you some support, too.


  1. Wonderful post!

    I'm not afraid of coming out as atheist most of the time, but I have had several negative reactions. Sometimes, that means vague threats and/or loss of friends. It can be an emotional burden, but I think it's worth it to know who will stand by me.

    That said, I'm in a different position from yours. My husband is atheist (we came to the conclusion around the same time), and my mother has recently declared herself atheist after 60+ years as a christian. I have a family unit that backs me up. My in-laws aren't too pleased about this, but they usually keep it to themselves.

    And, while I'm not hiding my atheism by any means, I don't focus my blog on it. I focus more on library science and critical thinking in the hopes of drawing in a wider base of readers. I do link to several atheist blogs in my blogroll, but it's not front and center. I post links to other atheists blogs mainly for community and to help (I hope) get some traffic to those bloggers I think deserve it.

    I don't ever bring my atheism up in conversation, but I don't hide it when the topic of religion comes up. I did far too much of that early on, and I don't like hiding anymore.

  2. I was lucky with my friends; none of them were terribly perturbed by my lack of faith, and after I came out and got that over with, I figured that anyone who couldn't accept that I was an atheist wouldn't make a terribly good friend to begin with. The only people from whom I hide my atheism (or much of anything, really) are people I'm related to.

    I figured a blog was a safe enough thing, as I doubt any of my relatives will be Googling my name on any kind of a regular basis, and if they do, well, I didn't tell them directly. It'll eventually get out, I'm sure, and if it doesn't, I'll come clean on my own once I can minimize the amount of flak undeserving parties take for it.

    I started the blog because I wanted to be more active in the godless community, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually it still seems like a good idea; I really enjoy writing it.

    I'd like to thank you for linking to me, by the way, and to say that I really like your Friday Fallacy posts. I don't know a whole lot about library science, but I find those quite accessible and enjoyable.

  3. Despite the fact that very few people really believe in god where I live, religion still has a disproportionate voice in politics and the media. Any time a moral question comes up, out they come to provide some irrelevant comments in the name of 'balance'. So, I do feel obliged to politely point this out when I see it. The weird thing is, I have more religious friends since I started doing this. I'm starting to suspect that even my friend in the clergy is just going through the motions these days.

  4. I don't know whether people just going through the motions worry me more or less than people who legitimately believe in all the superstitions, to be honest. I find both a bit disconcerting.

  5. Thank you for this post, and of course for being out about your atheism! While I was reading it, I wondered whether you think the same argument is applicable to coming out in other senses, as LGBTQ for example. Would there be an even stronger argument in favor of a duty in the case of sexuality given that it is not a choice? (one might argue that atheism is not a choice for the rational, but that's another matter...

    Also, I was intrigued by your loophole, the "duty as people to protect ourselves and those we love" by staying in the closet. 'Those we love' sounds like an arbitrary demarcation. How do we decide whether someone is worthless enough to us to know the truth about our beliefs? Are we perpetuating the shame by suggesting that we should hide such an essential component of our belief system from those we love?

    Perhaps more importantly, is not the personal political? Can we really maintain separate realms of identity?

  6. Rationally, I do think that it is my duty as a bisexual individual to be out about it. This is something I am still struggling with, personally. While I am out about it with friends and most strangers, I have not come out to any of my family about it. Honestly, I am scared of the consequences, and as I have not a romantic relationship with another woman that has lasted into the long-term, it hasn't been a subject which I have had to broach with my family. I will not shy from saying, though, that it is a subject which I should broach.

    As far as "those we love" is concerned, it is an ambiguous classification. I suppose it is up to each of us to determine who fits within that category. I won't pretend that I am qualified to tell people who they do and do not love, or what specific situations qualify as extreme enough to allow one to stay in the closet. At the end of the day, I think it's a personal value call.

    I would also like to point out that in my situation, it is not my extended family who I am protecting from knowing about my atheism. It is my immediate family (who know about my atheism) who have asked me to keep quiet about it. Furthermore, I do not intend to stay in the closet about it forever, and I will not lie about it, if it comes to that. I simply do not volunteer the information.

    On a related note, I wholeheartedly believe that those closest to us, those nearest our hearts, have the greatest right to be in the know. I in no way support lying or keeping things from loved ones. I realize that this is somewhat hypocritical of me, as I am still in the closet with my family concerning my bisexuality, but from a moral perspective, that is how I feel, and I hope that one day I will have the courage to be open with my family about it.

    Ideally, we should not have to even consider maintaining separate identities, but the world, and the people in it, are not perfect. The best thing we can do is to work toward what society should be.

    If there are few or no extenuating circumstances, I do believe that it is our duty to come out. I do not, however, think that any one of us has the authority to tell another that they must.

    (Apologies for the novella, and for any spelling or logic errors. It's my twenty-first birthday and I'm on my second daiquiri after splitting a pitcher of beer with my mom... Do feel free to call me out on it, though!)

  7. Happy 21st! What are you doing on the internet? Now I hope you don't read this until tomorrow:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    We can probably all agree that coming out can be detrimental to an individual (losing jobs, alienating family, etc.). My question is whether this move is a self sacrifice which is morally required. The 'moral requirement' clause gets rid of the paternalism of one person telling another what to do, and moves it into the sphere of ethics.

    In other words, when and to what extent do we have a moral duty to perform self-sacrifice? The workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are endangering their lives to protect others, as do firefighters and police officers. You might make a case that parents (in our culture particularly mothers) sacrifice their individual identities and goals for the interests of their children. Indeed, soldiers relinquish their rights for the defense of others. All of those cases involve choice, a voluntary self-sacrifice. But surely even under duress people can have a moral obligation to self sacrifice.

    If you're on a sinking lifeboat, and if you jump off, dozens of children will survive, don't you have a moral duty to self sacrifice?

    Are there even cases in which Other people have the prerogative to sacrifice you? If you are at the junction of train tracks, and you see a train barreling along out of control, about to run over...let's make it a whole orchestra of talented musicians this time. You could flip a switch and divert the train, but by doing so you would kill one concert pianist. Don't you have a duty to sacrifice that pianist?

    Now I'm the one getting off topic. Sorry.

    One last question though. Since you study psychology, have you come across any literature on the psychological effects of staying in the closet (re sexuality or religion or otherwise)?

  8. I'm online because I'm addicted to it? Also my mom asserted that mahi-mahi fish was dolphins. I had to prove to her that eating mahi-mahi tacos was not eating dolphins. Because of this, I noticed that there were new comments on le blog (I get email alerts), and so I responded, because I like to do that. Anyways, I have been out drinking, so more comments on the rest of your reply when I am back at school instead of at my parents hoping for not a hangover!

  9. Is the dilemma one between the perceived risks of being a) rejected now for revealing an uncomfortable truth, or; b) rejected later if you hide it and it's found out?

    @ FeministSmithie - I don't see how you could have the right to cause another's death (assuming they're not causing the risk to others or about to die anyway or some other special case), however many it might save.

  10. Oh, happy birthday for yesterday!

  11. @ Ged, I'd add two options to your initial question: c) risk of leading to the harm of other people by failing to reveal the truth; d) being disingenuous by not revealing the truth when silence is an implicit affirmation of the opposite (religion, heterosexuality, etc).

    The train junction example is a classic thought experiment, and the outcome I suggest is easily justifiable if you hold inaction to be action (and a little consequentialism). Take an adaptation of another thought experiment (from Peter Singer): you see a small child drowning in a pond. You could walk over and save the child's life without any risk or inconvenience to yourself. Are you to blame for Not rescuing the child?

    If you could, at no risk or harm to yourself, divert the train so that it didn't wipe out an entire orchestra (~100 talented musicians), but you chose not to, would you be to blame for their deaths?
    Add in the pianist on the alternate track, and you Must make the decision between killing 1 or killing 100, and either action or inaction would make you blameworthy. Don't you agree that choosing the orchestra over the pianist would be the morally defensible decision?

    The pianist is innocent, but so are the 100 orchestra players. Would you rather kill the 100 innocent than the 1 innocent?

  12. Clearly, it would be immoral to walk past a drowning child when you could easily intervene. But I don't agree that choosing the orchestra over the pianist is morally defensible. Neither would a criminal court. That's a different scenario altogether because it involves you deciding to kill someone. No one has a right to kill an innocent person whatever the alternative is. This 'greater good' thinking isn't condoned by the law and for very good reasons (though it might be considered at the sentencing stage in mitigation). It's the kind of fallacious reasoning terrorists use (e.g. pro-life nuts who shoot family planning workers to save unborn babies).

  13. But don't you see the dilemma? Inaction confers blame (if you don't save the child, you are blameworthy). So not flipping the switch to redirect the train makes you to blame for the deaths of 100 musicians. By allowing the pianist to die, you would be saving 100 people. Surely that is the right choice. You say that the reasoning is fallacious, but where is the fallacy?

    I think your analogies are problematic, not only for the negative connotations associated with terrorists and anti-choice extremists, but also because of the vastly different goals. The person at the railway junction wants to save the lives of 100 people by sacrificing one, knowing that flipping the switch will definitely save the 100. The terrorist, on the other hand, risks endangering more lives through hir actions, and is motivated by a desire to make a political statement, and by a belief that one 'us' is worth more than one 'them.' The anti-choice extremists utilize a similar hierarchy, prioritizing the interests of the (potentially male) fetus above those of the mother.

  14. We went over these arguments in my Morality & Justice class last semester. While I can see the case for either side, I'm inclined to agree more with the outcome with fewer fatalities. As a psych student, though, I would like to point out that people are more likely to be more conflicted when actively causing harm to another than when they do so inactively. Not that this makes it okay to stand by and allow others to come to harm, but it does, I think, show why many people tend to err towards inaction.

    I would also like to point out that criminal courts (or any other kind or court) do not rule based on morality, which is what we are debating here.

    Beyond that, however, I don't think that life-or-death morality is necessarily applicable in the situation we started out considering. We would first have to specify what rights and what duties and what interests we were working with.

    In that line, I think we can all agree that freedom of religion is a right, but is it our duty to make our choice of religion (or non-religion) known? Is having an interest in preservation of one's own or one's friend's or family's apparent character a defensible position? Where do these intersect?

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