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Coming out as an atheist - Stomping Grounds
October 11th, 2011
10:50 pm
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Coming out as an atheist
So apparently today was National Coming Out Day, which makes it as appropriate a day as any for me to crank out a post I've been mulling for some time.

Here's the deal: I am an atheist. I used to beat around the bush with phrases like "semi-Taoist agnostic" or "Christian sympathizer," but the simple truth is that a lifetime of study, observation, and contemplation have led me to the firm conclusion that supernatural phenomena do not genuinely exist. There are no gods, no devils, no demons, no angels, no unicorns, no fairies, no shoggoths, no psychic powers, no flying saucers. And the simplest word for articulating this stance is "atheist." ("Skeptic" might also work, but has other connotations as well. Some folks like "freethinker" but that's not as widely used.)

Some fraction of the people reading this, particularly the ones who've known me the best or the longest, will be thinking, "Well, duh." Some others might think, "An atheist? But he's so nice." And some others might be thinking, "So? Why make a big deal out of it?"

Well, the reason for coming out and saying it is similar to the reasons LGBTQ folks have for being open about who they are. It's easy to dismiss a group or its members when they're faceless, nameless, and nebulous, a non-specific "them" who act "that way" and believe "those things." It's much harder to do it when you're talking about a friend, neighbor, or colleague. And in recent months and years, groups who've had the audacity to post billboards saying things like "You can be good without God" or "Don't believe in God? You're not alone" have met with complaints, protests, and vandalism, and individuals who have complained about religion in schools have been ostracized, disowned, and even received death threats. LGBTQ people and atheists have in common the fact that many people (and in some cases the same people) see their very existence as illegitimate. And the atheist crowd is getting increasingly vocal about the fact that that's not okay, and I support that.

So, the purpose of this entry today is not to go into detail about the reasons for my atheism (though they are many and I would happily elucidate in other contexts) or to invite anyone to "save" me or to convince anyone else to give up their own beliefs. It's simply to say out loud, "Hey, atheists exist, and are not all bitter nihilists, and in fact can be kinda nice, and whether you knew it or not, I'm one."

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From:kyaathecatlord
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:04 am (UTC)
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Just because you don't believe in shoggoths doesn't mean they're not out there, waiting in the cracks in the universe to slime the unwary until they lose their sanity. :P
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From:luagha
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:49 am (UTC)
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You beat me to it. I was going to say:

"No shoggoths?" >edges away carefully
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From:elthar
Date:October 12th, 2011 06:06 am (UTC)
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Relax, there's not a shred of evidence that shoggoths actually IA IA CTHULHU F'HTAGN
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From:elthar
Date:October 12th, 2011 06:00 am (UTC)
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Ah, but who said I was unwary? I have precious few SAN points left, I try to guard them carefully...
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From:cmdrhobbes
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:11 am (UTC)
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A SHOGGOTH! SURPRISE!
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From:cmdrhobbes
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:32 am (UTC)
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Ahem. To follow up more seriously, this 2006 study describes atheists as the group of people most likely to be targeted for intolerant behavior.

This is why an atheist "coming out" is a big deal.
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From:elthar
Date:October 12th, 2011 06:01 am (UTC)
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Indeed. And it's why it's doubly annoying when conservative Christians, usually in the context of the "War on Christmas" (so we're about due for another round), strike the martyr pose and proclaim themselves "the last group it's safe to discriminate against."
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From:rfrancis
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:32 am (UTC)
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I can only come out as someone who has nothing much to come out as. I'm in a lot of privileged groupings and for the rest I think I've mouthed off at length about it. Can I come out as being a liberal Christian? For having gay friends who don't make me even a little bit uncomfortable? For liking hard cider? :) Ah well.
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From:elthar
Date:October 12th, 2011 06:04 am (UTC)
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As an adult white male professional, this is about the one part of my life where I'm not in the privileged group. Though I'm not in "the 1%", either...

And of course liking hard cider shows that you are redeemable despite your many other despicable traits. :)
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From:randomdreams
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:46 am (UTC)
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Huh, interesting. I like it.
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From:pecos
Date:October 12th, 2011 05:50 am (UTC)
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I've been out most of my life. I'm an Athiest, too.
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From:elthar
Date:October 12th, 2011 06:08 am (UTC)
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Yeah, it's not like I've been masquerading as a churchgoer, which I haven't been since the age of 10... but somehow there's a subtle difference between saying "I'm not religious" and "I'm an atheist." It's kinda weird.
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From:gregnostic
Date:October 20th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)
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I've always found that identity is the most difficult part of being an atheist. And judging by the sheer number of terms out there to describe those who don't believe in the supernatural—atheists, agnostics, non-theists, anti-theists, freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, secularists, naturalists, non-believers, brights, etc.—it's clear that I'm not the only one who's had trouble with it.

These days, I too label myself simply as an "atheist." But that wasn't always the case. I respect logic and the scientific method to much to be able to say "there cannot be a God"—one cannot prove a negative, after all—so I put myself out there as "agnostic" for years. But saying "I just don't know" was for me entirely disingenuous. There was never doubt in my mind about whether the supernatural existed with the natural; it was simply a given that they did not. My agnostic label was really nothing more than a wishy-washy way of saying that I can't prove a negative, and that never sat right with me.

But these days I find some solace in the idea of "teapot atheism." Just because I can't prove a negative doesn't mean that I think the assertions made by believers have any merit. The idea of a personal God is no less ridiculous to me than the idea of an invisible teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars.

Atheism is often framed in active and passive senses. In the active sense, it's believing that the supernatural doesn't exist. In the passive sense, it's simply lacking the belief that the supernatural exists. I would wager that many western atheists fall into the first camp because they're "first-generation atheists." They form their opinions on their own, and they were believers themselves at one point or at least grew up in a community of believers.

But I think the term "atheist" will eventually go the way of "abolitionist" (i.e. the framing of anti-slavery beliefs in the active sense). Just as no one feels the need to refer to themselves as abolitionists these days, people won't feel the need to refer to themselves as atheists in the future. It simply won't be something that comes up in their day-to-day lives, except in history class. "The arc of history [...] tends toward justice," and all that. Eventually, the arc will move the culture away from strongly-held religious beliefs.

In many parts of the country already, the majority of people under 30 are unaffiliated with any religion. Strong religious belief skews toward the older demographics, and the population of the US is skewed toward older demographics because of baby boomers. But 50 years from now, the age distribution in the US will be much more even and, well, to put it bluntly, the baby boomers (and their parents) will all be dead and those strong beliefs will, for the most part, die with them. I'm not wishing death on anyone, of course, but let's just call it a silver lining of human mortality...

But I'm getting away from my point. I'm an atheist in the active sense. I'd prefer to be an atheist in the passive sense. But given the current climate, where being an atheist makes you nearly unelectable in even the most progressive states and districts in this country, it still takes being an active atheist to help bend that arc of history away from actual persecution. Even if the goal is just "I'll leave you the hell alone if you leave me the hell alone," there's still a long way to go.
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