December 19, 2013

Identifying Oneself as an Atheist is a Revolutionary Act

The Radical's Arms
The Radical's Arms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We know what atheism means. It refers to the lack of theistic belief, and that is all. An atheist is someone who does not accept the the claim that god(s) exist. But this post is not about the definition of atheism; it is about the socially constructed meaning the act of identifying oneself as an atheist carries in religiously oppressive environments.

The meaning of identifying oneself as an atheist (though not the definition of atheism itself) is somewhat fluid, changing as a function of the time and place. There are many parts of the world, for example, where identifying oneself as an atheist today means something quite different today than it did 30 years ago.

What I would like to submit for your consideration here is the following thought:
In a religiously oppressive environment, merely identifying oneself as an atheist is a revolutionary act.
In environments where religious belief is the norm and the overwhelming majority of the population share god-belief, standing up and saying, "No, I do not believe in your god(s); I am an atheist," threatens the status quo in a manner that makes many people quite uncomfortable. It is a revolutionary act.

But why does identifying oneself as an atheist make people so uncomfortable? I'll offer five reasons here, and I suspect there are at least a couple more that could be added.
  1. Identifying oneself as an atheist communicates that the dominant religious beliefs of the surrounding culture are not the only option. The atheist is living proof that there are alternatives available, alternatives religious believers would prefer to keep from their children.
  2. Identifying oneself as an atheist shows that dissent from the majority religion is present right here at home. Such differences are not foreign; they are present right here in this "god fearing" environment.
  3. The individual identifying himself or herself as an atheist is often perceived as communicating that the religious beliefs of the majority are wrong, even if that is not his or her intent. The very existence of an atheist can be troubling for some religious individuals.
  4. Many religious believers interpret the presence of atheists, especially when it our numbers appear to be increasing, as a signal that change is coming. The privileged status one's religion has enjoyed for one's entire life may soon be in jeopardy.
  5. For many religious believers, morality is rooted in god-belief, and atheism is synonymous with evil.
For these reasons, merely identifying oneself as an atheist is bound to make others uncomfortable. Is it any wonder that atheists often report experiencing considerably social pressure to keep our thoughts on religion to ourselves?

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