September 15, 2019

How They React When They Learn You Are an Atheist

girl with suitcase

There are plenty of excellent reasons many atheists living in the United States today are reluctant to tell people that they are atheists. Most involve concerns about discrimination, social ostracization, and even one's personal safety. But there is another category that often flies under the radar: many atheists have grown so tired of having to have the same conversations with Christians over and over again that they'd prefer to avoid doing so. Faced with the prospect of having to answer more questions like, "How do you find meaning with (my preferred) god?" or listen to yet another Christian rattle on about how he or she would be running wild in the streets without god-belief leads me to think twice about revealing my atheism.

Some atheists truly enjoy having this sort of dialogue with Christians, and that's great. I wish more of them would move to the South where they could experience this sort of thing every day. They would probably love it here. I used to enjoy these conversations too, but that was over 20 years ago. I have no interest in them now, and that's mostly because they are all the same.

To be fair, this sort of thing is not unique to Christians or specific to atheists. If you are LGB, you might be tired of having to hear "I could never be attracted to someone of the same sex." If you are a Satanist, you might be tired of having to explain that you do not believe in a literal Satan. If you are Black, you might be tired of White people asking if they can touch your hair (or trying to do so without asking). If you are a horror junkie or a metalhead, you might be tired of feeling like you have to defend your interests from those who will never get it.

I was a strict vegetarian for roughly 12 years. The biggest downside was having to endure the same conversation over and over in which I had to listen to others explain how they enjoyed animal flesh so much that they could never give it up even though I never suggested that they should. As soon as they found out I was a vegetarian, the conversation would become all about them and their apparent need to defend themselves against a choice I made for myself and never dreamed of pushing on anyone else.

But while these conversations are not limited to Christians or always directed at atheists, atheism does have the distinct disadvantage of being extremely unpopular and stigmatized to the point where anti-atheist bigotry remains socially acceptable in many contexts. I've had more than a few instances where disclosing my atheism to someone I trusted had negative consequences because they violated my trust and outed me. And once they outed me, I got to experience the social ostracization and bigotry from some and had to have more inane conversations with others. Each time, I concluded that I had made a mistake in revealing myself to others.

Would it help the goal of normalizing atheism if more atheists openly identified as atheists? Absolutely! I have little doubt that this would be one of the most effective things we could do. Is it any mystery why some atheists choose not to do so or are at least careful about how and when they do so? Nope. And while that's a shame, I can't say I blame any of them.