June 2, 2020

Atheism: A Choice to be Alone?

man alone

Is atheism a choice one makes? Did I wake up one morning and decide I was going to be an atheist? No. Did you? I recognized that I had become an atheist, despite doing everything I could to fight against it, and I gradually came to terms with it. What I did choose was applying the label to myself and telling at least some other people about it. I choose those things, but I do not think I chose atheism. Even as a youth, I was sufficiently familiar with how atheists were viewed in the larger culture that I would not have chosen atheism for myself.

While doing some reading in the atheist blogosphere, I came across a post by J. C. Samuelson on Ex-Christian.net (update: link no longer active) that captured my attention: "Public Atheism: A Question of Image or Discrimination?" Although the post is no longer available, I suspect most of you have given the topic reflected in its title some attention. Are the negative attitudes atheists face more about public relations or discrimination? But there was something else about the post that caught my eye and prompted me to write this post.

The whole article is a good, thought-provoking read, but something in the first paragraph made a particularly strong impression.

In a world in which faith and supernaturalism have always ruled, being an atheist (in the broadest possible sense and including naturalists of many stripes) has never been easy. Classically, the individual claiming that title (or one like it) risked alienating his/her entire social circle and, depending on prominence, society at large. In other words, choosing atheism seemed to be - and perhaps still is in some places - a choice to be alone. [italics added for emphasis]

Is that accurate? Is atheism really a choice to be alone? I think there may be something to this. Don't we have to assume that anyone "coming out" as an atheist today in a predominately religious country with a long history of demonizing atheists (e.g., the United States) has at least some understanding of the consequences they are likely to face?

If we assume that most atheists are aware of the degree to which they will be isolated by their professions of atheism, we must ask why anyone would choose to let others know they are atheists unless they wanted to be alone. Do we atheists prefer truth over acceptance? Have we simply gotten carried away with an urge to rebel?

Of course, questions like this imply that atheism is a choice, and I do not think this is how many of us experience it. At one point in my life, I was conscious of making a choice to embrace atheism, but this was not the same thing as choosing to be an atheist. It was more like deciding to embrace that I was losing my hair and not actually removing my hair. Today, I have great difficulty imagining that I could go back to Christianity even if I wanted to do so. Could I really unlearn virtually everything I know and retreat to superstition and irrational faith? Lots to think about.

Samuelson went on to describe how the atheist revival taking place at the time was changing the degree to which atheists are isolated, at least for those atheists fortunate enough to live in reasonably progressive areas. If correct, we could predict that we would soon begin to see a different sort of atheist. At the time, I noted that only the passage of time would show us whether the positive effects of the atheist movement would last or continue to spread to other areas.

As for the question of whether atheists are dealing with a public relations problem or one of discrimination, I can answer with one word...yes. We do have a serious public relations problem, and we are often discriminated against. Any dichotomy here is a false one. I don't think atheists are making a choice to be alone because I don't think most of us are choosing to be atheists. And besides, the persistence of anti-atheist bigotry is such that I don't think we should blame atheists for the bigotry directed at us.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and updated in 2020.