July 13, 2007

Atheism: A Choice to be Alone?

alone in the dark
alone in the dark (Photo credit: miss vichan)
Is atheism a choice one makes? Did I wake up one morning and decide I was going to be an atheist? No. I recognized that I had become an atheist and gradually came to terms with it. What I did choose was applying the label to myself and telling other people about it. But I do not think I chose atheism.

While doing some reading in the atheist blogosphere, I cane across a post by J. C. Samuelson that captured my attention - Ex-Christian.net's article, "Public Atheism: A Question of Image or Discrimination?" Even if you haven't read it yet, it will be familiar because it addresses a popular question you will surely recognize from the title. However, there was something else about the post that caught my eye.

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 really be something to this. Don't we have to assume that anyone "coming out" as an atheist today has at least some understanding of the consequences they are likely to face?

If we assume that most atheists are aware of degree to which they will be isolated by professions of atheism, we must ask why anyone would chose to do so 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, my questions imply that atheism is a choice. Is this something we can assume? At one point in my life, I was conscious of making a choice to embrace atheism, but I'm not sure if this is the same thing as choosing to be an atheist. Moreover, 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? Much to think about.

Samuelson goes on to describe how the current atheist revival is changing the degree to which atheist are isolated, at least for those atheists fortunate enough to live in reasonably progressive areas. If this is correct, we may begin to see a different sort of atheist. Only time will tell whether the positive effects of the atheist movement will last or will continue to spread to other areas.

As for the increasingly popular 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.

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