August 24, 2015

Why is it not okay to say you're an atheist?

This past spring, I finished up two books on "coming out" as an atheist--Mom, Dad, I'm an Atheist by David McAfee and Coming Out Atheist by Greta Christina.

Sometimes, it takes me a while to process things, and so I for one am unsurprised that it's only now that one of the points that was pointed out in both books struck me as so, for lack of a better term, ridiculously unfair. Both authors pointed out that when you come out as an atheist, you should expect some defensiveness among believers because you are saying, "You are wrong."

They were quick to make the point that this isn't your fault and it's perfectly okay to defend yourself and to speak openly about your lack of belief, but it was still there, the idea that theists have almost a right to be offended at being told that they are wrong--at assuming that what you are saying is that they are wrong.

I thought of this again recently when a very dear friend of mine posted on Facebook about her struggle to own up to being a Christian. To me, the very idea seemed laughable--after all, our nation is still majority Christian-identifying. Most of our politicians identify as some stripe of Christian. But I also understand. When I was a Christian, I too was told that I was a minority, that very few people would admit to being a Christian. That this conflicted heavily with my daily observations was something I never really considered until I was well-outside of my childhood faith and on my way to atheism.

But in reading her post, it struck me that a Christian is saying a version of the same thing when they say, "I'm a Christian," that an atheist is saying when they say, "I'm an atheist," and yet, there's no expectation there that people will become defensive.

When a Christian says, "I'm a Christian," they are saying that Jews are wrong; Muslims are wrong; Pagans are wrong; atheists and agnostics and other nonbelievers are wrong. They are saying Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and Shintoists are all wrong.

And it can go further. A Christian can say, "I'm a Baptist," and imply that Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals, Mormons, Episcopalians and so many other sects are wrong--but no one blinks an eye. They don't need people to tell them that it's okay to say who they are and how they identify and what they believe. (This isn't to say this has always been--of course sects have faced persecution over the course of the religion's history that made it difficult to identify their religious sect for fear of jeopardizing their livelihood or even lives.)

It's not that I am offended by David or Greta saying this. Not in the slightest. I enjoyed both books and found them truly comforting, entertaining, and reassuring. It's that it needs to be said at all that bothers me.

I imagine there are theistic sects in the United States that also endure the same obstacle--the simple inability to freely identify yourself without any concern for the impact on your day-to-day life. I'm sure this same blog post could be written by a Muslim, for instance, or a Satanist.

But I am an atheist. And I don't feel like I should be ashamed to say it. I don't feel like saying it should be a cause for me to brace for an argument or for invasive questions. I don't feel like saying it should draw a giant "please convert me" target on my back.

When someone says, "I'm a Christian," around me, it's not an opening for me to tell them what I think of religion. I don't think saying, "I'm an atheist," should be theirs.

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