Social Costs of Opting Out of Religious Traditions and Atheism

hiking alone

I found much I could relate to in Bill's recent post at Dispassionate Doubt: Five Reasons Why I Identify as Atheist. But it was his first reason that really got me thinking: "I had nothing to lose." You see, Bill came to atheism late enough in life that he really didn't have much to lose by identifying himself as an atheist. As he said,

Most of my family and friends were either dead or saw things somewhat as I did. Any estrangements had already happened for other reasons. I no longer worked, so I had time to learn.

Clearly, those of us who recognized that we did not believe in gods early in life and made the decision to identify ourselves as atheists when we were young may have had a different experience. Depending on where we lived and the details of our lives, we may have had more to lose by doing so. This got me thinking about the costs of identifying oneself as an atheist and which ones we might have incurred.

For me, I'd say there have been two main costs involved in identifying myself as an atheist: occupational and social. The first has been relatively trivial, especially in comparison to the second. When I stupidly disclosed that I did not believe in gods to a co-worker I thought I could trust, word spread quickly and I faced some negative consequences. The people involved were smart enough in how they handled it that I could never prove that what I encountered was a direct result of word of my atheism getting out. All I can say with certainty is that my boss at the time and a couple of co-workers began treating me poorly within a few days of my disclosure. The change in treatment by my co-workers was hurtful but did not quite rise to the level of a hostile workplace. What I faced from my boss was a far bigger issue, and I did seriously consider filing a complaint but decided that publicly outing myself in that way would likely mean I'd need to quit and relocate. At least he's no longer my boss.

The social costs have been many and far more important than the occupational ones. I have lost a few friends and several potential friends not so much because I've identified as an atheist but because I've admitted that I didn't believe in their preferred gods. What I mean by that is that using the "atheist" label has not been necessary to bring about this outcome. Saying something like, "I'm not sure I believe that," "I'm not really a big church person," or even politely declining repeated invitations to attend their church have been enough. While I can often look at this as less of a bad thing (i.e., I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who does that anyway), there are times when it gets to me. I sometimes think my extremely low social needs are the only thing that keeps it from being unbearable.

The single-most important cost of opting not to participate in religious traditions (which does not typically require me to even identify myself as an atheist) is the social isolation it brings. I suspect this might not be quite as pervasive in some areas as it has been here in Mississippi, and that does give me some hope. I have learned to live with it, and it is not uncommon for weeks to elapse without giving it much thought. But it does get to me at times and probably always will.

This is the point in the post where some readers may expect me to say something about how atheism is worth it despite the costs, but I can't do that. First, even if it was worth it for me, it would be presumptuous to assume that it would be for anyone else. Second and far more important, I'm not sure it really matters since I did not chose to be an atheist and do not chose to remain one. I am an atheist whether I'd like to be or not. I have chosen not to participate in any religious traditions or rituals, and I have chosen to identify myself as an atheist at times, though I rarely do so these days. These choices have come with social consequences with which I must live.

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