Being an atheist in the United States is hard.
Well, I should clarify: being a non-Christian in the United States is hard. Not being the “right flavor” of Christian is hard*. However, to many, being an atheist is a new kind of low. A new kind of rampant godless heathen low.
I have been with Mr. Silverwane, my Jewish boyfriend, for a long time now. Religion was never an issue for us. We agree on what we consider to be important, and we respect each other where we differ. And when I first started to meet his family and friends, I was (very) fortunate in that not one of them disliked me. But apparently they formed an image of me in their heads. Shy. Conservative. Christian. (Guess which one of the three was true? Hint: doesn’t start with “C.”)
While finding out that they assumed this about me was amusing, it set up a potentially uncomfortable conversation. And it wasn’t telling them that I was actually quite liberal that gave me pause. It was telling them I was an atheist.
For a long while, until I was about fifteen or so, when asked, I identified as agnostic. And it wasn’t because I was truly agnostic. It was because, deep down, I felt that when I told someone, “I am an atheist,” they would hear, “I hate you and your religion.” Indeed, the idea that atheism, by its very existence, challenges the efficacy of religion has been around for centuries. It has even been expressed by 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who has often been regarded as one of the most progressive people of his time when it came to religious toleration. In one of his Letters of Toleration, he wrote, “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” But later, in the exact same letter, he said this:
Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.
Thus, John Locke, the same person who said it was un-Christian to hate not only other sects of Christianity but other religions as well, said that atheists were in no way trustworthy human beings. For him, to take away God, not only do you undermine religion as a whole, but you threaten everything society stands for. And indeed, I’ve faced this response more times than I can count. By revealing my rampant godlessness, I am in fact threatening someone’s sense that society matters. That morality counts.
And it’s all because they believe you can’t be a good, reliable person without religion.
In a 1999 Gallup poll, 48% of Americans said they would “refuse to vote for “˜a generally well-qualified person for president’” if they knew zhe was an atheist. (For context, an atheistic candidate received the highest percentage of automatic refusal, beating out a Muslim candidate at 38%, a gay candidate at 37%, and a Mormon candidate at 17%.)
Now, of course, this was over a decade ago. But times don’t seem to have changed much. Here’s a few key excepts from a recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia. Which, while based in Canada, also rings true for many an American.
In one of the studies, participants said atheists more closely matched the description of an untrustworthy person than Muslims, Jews, Christians, feminists or homosexual men did. The only people that were counted nearly as untrustworthy as atheists were rapists, who are described by the study as an “unambiguously distrusted group.”
“While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty,” said [Ara] Norenzayan.
One of the reasons the researchers gave for this distrust of nonbelievers, however, is a shared feeling “that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior.”
The UBC study was conducted in the “atypically secular settings of a university, in one of the most secular cities in North America,” indicating atheist distrust might be even stronger in “more typically religious areas.”
These days, I am unashamed about my atheism. I talk about it openly. But too often, when I talk about that part of who I am, I am met with antipathy and scorn.
Most of everyone in Mr. Silverwane’s circle was, to their credit, completely fine with my atheism. Or, at least, if they had an issue with it, they kept it private. But there was one person who was not: his now-ex-sister-in-law.
I wasn’t there when my atheism came up in conversation. He told me what happened later. I don’t even remember why it was mentioned, but it was, one day, when the two of them were talking: Silverwane is an atheist.
She went quiet, as he told me. That sudden quiet that falls on a person when they hear something about someone that shocks them to their core. That quiet that in a heartbeat turns into disgust. Revulsion. I am familiar with that quiet. The sudden snap of a person from warm to cold when you tell them those four dreaded words: “I am an atheist.”
He reminded her that I’m still the same person she thought I was when she thought I was Christian. The same person she saw as a kind, friendly, and upright human being. So she relaxed. But that was not the end of the discussion. One day, the two of them got into an argument. Alcohol was involved.
“If you two decide to have kids, how are you going to raise them? Jewish or atheist?” she demanded.
Mr. Silverwane remarked later that she never breathed a word of the question when she thought I was Christian. All of a sudden, it was a concern to her: that if we had children, they might also be godless heathens. It showed me then that it wasn’t being a non-Christian that was truly terrible to her. It was lacking religion at all.
When I was seven, my family and I were on vacation visiting my grandmother. She had been raised Christian, but she converted to Judaism for the sake of her Jewish husband when they married. She wasn’t an openly religious person. I never remember hearing about her attending any religious services, whether at a church or a synagogue. But nonetheless, one day, when were alone in the car together, she turned to me and said something I will never forget.
“You need to get a religion,” she told me.
I was flabbergasted. “Why?”
“I just want to see you grow up well.”
Today, I don’t believe she feels I would have grown up “better” had I grown up with religion. Nonetheless, my whole life, I have encountered people who have insinuated that very sentiment: that children need religion to set them straight. Otherwise, they will grow up into malicious adults who don’t care for or about others. That they will grow up into the rampant godless shithead that is me.
So now, whenever I run into a person like this, I feel compelled to talk about what atheism is to me. About how I don’t think science can give the answers to everything. About how I’m strongly influenced by Daoism. About how sometimes I feel a strong disconnect from the atheist movement because it is so (white) male-dominated. About how I value not only religious experience but religion.
For every person whose mind I have changed, there have been ten more who cease listening the moment they hear the word “atheist” leave my lips. All they see is a person without morals, without feeling, and without religion.
So I keep talking. I keep talking because someday, I would love to see a world where it isn’t what you believe that counts, or even who you are, but how you live.
*It is, of course, a hell of a lot harder in many places, and I in no way wish to diminish the struggles of people who aren’t the “right” religion across the globe. I recognize that I have a lot of privilege in that I have the ability to talk openly about my atheism without facing more serious repercussions than some people thinking I’m a terrible person. A lot of people don’t have that.