April 2, 2008

The Cowardly Atheist

Words like "courageous" or "brave" are overused in American society to the point where their meaning has eroded. To my mind, these terms should be reserved for persons who have demonstrated strength in undertaking or persevering through great danger, fear, or challenge. Implied in this definition is the idea that someone has something to risk and is willing to risk it. Courage and bravery are not supposed to be easy or routine. And yet, these labels can meaningfully be applied to many atheists who do indeed stand their ground in the face of great personal risk.

In one way, atheism is a courageous position in that we know the degree to which the public despises us. However, it is also quite easy to conceal one's lack of religious belief to fit in or avoid conflict when desired. The atheist who does not openly express his or her lack of belief in most contexts can hardly be described as courageous.

I am just such an atheist. I have never been particularly brave or courageous. Placing myself at risk has never been something that comes naturally. I rarely seem to do or say at the moment of greatest risk what I will almost certainly wish I had done or said later. Sure, I've taken some risks and stood up for what I believe to be right in some difficult situations, but I have also remained silent out of fear more often than I'd like to admit.

When I think about Wesley Crawford and his recent show of courage in calling attention to school-sponsored religious activities at his high school, I am awed by his courage. When I was a freshman in high school like Wesley, I never would have taken a stand like this. I was way too preoccupied with what others thought of me and would have been terrified to inaction were I faced with his situation. In contrast, Wesley knew he would face consequences for speaking out and did it anyway.

I was extremely open about my lack of religious belief throughout college and would have been one to proudly wear t-shirts with pro-atheist slogans. I would share my thoughts on religion with anyone, indifferent or oblivious to the possible consequences. And yet, this was not particularly brave because I was not risking much, at least not much about which I was concerned. The costs, and there were some, were ones I could work around fairly well.

As the risks increased greatly following college, especially since moving to the South, I'm considerably less open about my beliefs. I've never before encountered the vehemence with which atheists are demonized here, even among educated persons. My true lack of courage has revealed itself. I cannot blame my environment, only myself.

Tags: , , , , ,