"You're not an atheist, are you?" I remember the hiss with which "atheist" came out of her mouth. The words were dripping with disdain. "Please tell me you're not one of them." I think it is understandable that I hesitated for a moment. Up until then, I had liked this young woman. And besides, I spent the first 17 years of my life being told by nearly everyone around me that atheists were despicable beings who should probably just be stamped out of existence. One doesn't overcome that quickly, if one overcomes it at all. But I was tired of lying. I had done that too much already, and I just ended up hating myself as a result. "Yes, I am an atheist."
The look on her face told me everything I needed to know. This potential relationship was over. Whatever hopes I had about us getting to know each other, becoming friends, or becoming romantically involved were gone. What I saw in her face was disgust and hatred. And in that instant, she ceased to be appealing in any way. I had been rejected, but it no longer felt like a one-sided rejection. I had seen what was behind her mask, and I was as ready to steer clear of her as she was of me.
This was not the first time I had told someone I was an atheist. My good friends all knew that I was an atheist, and most did not seem to have any real trouble with it. This was also not the first time I had told a young woman I was attracted to that I was an atheist Of course, the first time was easy because she had already told me that she was an atheist. This was the first time I had told someone I was attracted to in spite of having a hunch that it was not going to be received well. And as far as first times go, I think I'd prefer to forget this one.
Those of us who are atheists living in religious countries have the same firsts as everybody else. Our first kiss, the first time we drove a car, our first taste of alcohol, and so on. But I bet that most of us have another set of firsts. The first time we told someone we don't believe in gods, the first time we were told we were going to hell, and the first time we lost what might have looked like a promising relationship due to anti-atheist bigotry. Sure, some of us also have some positive things we could add to such a list. How about the first time we told someone we were an atheist and their response was something like, "Duh, who isn't?"
Negative attitudes toward atheists are far too common. They might not be as common or as nasty as they once were, but they are still easy to find. As a result, most of us probably have similar stories. These stories might be one of the things that connects us. I think they might be one of the things that leads some atheists to seek out other atheists. It is nice to have the chance to spend time with others where one can be oneself without being subjected to bigotry. It is not that we can't handle it; it is that we shouldn't always have to do so. Every once in a while, we deserve a respite.