Shunning Atheists

picket fence

I'd like to give credit where credit is due and thank crittervalley for inspiring this post with a recent comment on my post, The Christian Burial. I had been thinking about writing something about how many atheists in the U.S. have probably struggled at one time or another because we do not accept the religious delusion of the majority. I wasn't quite sure how to get started, and then I saw crittervalley's comment:

When we first came here we were invited to a 4th of July BBQ. About 20 people with their kids showed up. At noon the Owner stands up and says we have 2 new people. I will let Tom say Grace. I was caught by surprise so I said---I do not know what Steve means so I will let him pick someone else. Then of course they thanked god for the rain the sun etc. Needless to say we were never invited again.
This is a good example of what I mean by atheists being shunned for not going along with the religious beliefs of their neighbors, and it is something I suspect most of us have experienced at least a few times.

Since I do not recall ever doing this to someone when I was a Christian, I am not completely sure what might go through their minds when they do it. At the same time, I have heard Christians justify it on a few occasions. Some of these took place when I was still a Christian and others happened when I was an atheist but not yet open about it. Their rationale was simple and usually phrased as something like, "She's not one of us. She doesn't even believe in (our preferred) god!" That seemed to be all it takes to exclude someone from their lives without experiencing even a twinge of guilt.

For some Christians, the fact that someone else is not a Christian is more than enough of a reason to have as little to do with them as possible. But if this other person is (gasp) an atheist, far more Christians seem to agree that they should be shunned. We can speculate about whether this has something to do with their fear that we might somehow undermine their fragile faith; however, I think it might be simpler and more accurate just to recognize this as bigotry.

I have had a number of experiences over the years where I have been given a glimpse into how this works from the perspective of Christians who do it. Most of these have involved a Christian bashing someone else in front of me and feeling free to do so because they mistakenly assumed that I was a Christian. The disparaging comments they made about someone they thought was an atheist almost always centered on morality. They expressed their belief that nobody who did not believe in (their preferred) god could be a good person. The atheist could not be trusted, the atheist was evil, and so on. And the moment they found out that I was an atheist, I was to be treated the same way. It is difficult to see this as anything other than bigotry.

Many of us living in the U.S. have experienced considerable pressure to conform with a variety of traditions and customs, many of which are explicitly Christian. The form they take varies greatly by where one lives. Because larger cities have more diversity, they often feel less oppressive because the range of available norms with which one might be pressured to conform is so much greater. On the other hand, small towns often feel more oppressive because the lack of diversity means that one is being pushed to conform with something much narrower and more specific (e.g., evangelical fundamentalist Christianity with a specific political bent).

Some atheists do their best to fit in and at least look like they are conforming with the local norms. Others make little effort to do so. Not surprisingly, those who are unwilling to go along are the most likely to be shunned and subjected to other examples of bigotry. Is it any wonder that so many prefer to keep their atheism under wraps?