October 27, 2011

The Confrontational Nature of Coming Out Atheist

ConfrontationGreta Christina has written one of the most thought-provoking posts about coming out atheist I've read in awhile. Her central point is that coming out as an atheist (i.e., disclosing one's atheism to others) is an inherently oppositional act because it communicates to believers that they are wrong on the god question. For all of us who have been wondering why our very existence seems to agitate many religious believers, I think we may have our answer.

There are similarities between coming out atheist and coming out queer; however, there is at least one big difference with important implications:
There is something inherent in saying, “I’m an atheist” that implies, “You are mistaken to be a believer.” Even if you’re not saying it explicitly. Even if you couldn’t care less about persuading people out of religion. Even if you’re actively opposed to the idea of persuading people out of religion. There is no way to say, “I don’t believe in God,” without implying, “If you do believe in God, you’re wrong.”
Greta Christina notes that coming out atheist is much more than an oppositional act, but she encourages us to acknowledge that it is that as well. I think she's right, and this may help us understand some of the consequences we often face for coming out or for promoting even seemingly neutral messages about atheism.

Viewed in this manner, the most neutral atheist billboard you could imagine (e.g., one that said nothing more than "atheists exist") communicates that religious believers are wrong. Wearing a t-shirt with a pro-atheist message becomes a confrontational act of sorts.

Of course, it is important to point out that Greta Christina acknowledges that the reverse is true as well. A Christian wearing a t-shirt with a pro-Christian message is communicating that everyone else is wrong too. This sort of message is no less confrontational, but it has the advantage of being the majority position in the U.S. (i.e., Christian privilege).

Nobody particularly enjoys being told that they are wrong, especially when deeply held convictions are at stake. It is reasonable to expect that this sort of communication will impact relations between atheists and the religious.
For one thing: I strongly suspect that relations between atheists and believers are always going to be a little conflicted, a little divisive… in a way that relations between straights and queers don’t have to be. When atheists are trying to get along with believers — whether politically and culturally in alliance work, or personally with the friends and family in our own lives — the reality is that, unless one of us changes our minds, we’re always going to disagree about this whole God question. And for many of us, both atheists and believers, the God question is a pretty important one, one with implications that resonate through our lives and the ways we see the world. That doesn’t mean we can’t have relationships with believers… but it does mean that this disagreement is always going to be present. And we’re going to have to find ways to manage it.
I have certainly encountered this sort of tension in many relationships with religious believers. For the relationship to work, we inevitably had to reach an agreement that the subject of religious belief would be off-limits. This works fairly well for me in a number of casual relationships and friendships. It has not worked particularly well in truly intimate relationships.

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