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5 Things I Learned from Coming Out as an Atheist

5 Things I Learned from Coming Out as an Atheist

“You’re a what?” It’s usually that, or a slightly suspicious, “Are you secretly a devil worshiper?” glance. But I’m not. I’m just an atheist –well, technically I’m an agnostic humanist (with some qualifiers) but that’s a bit of a mouthful when, inevitably, the topic of belief and society rears its head in the pub or at a dinner party.

I’ve learned a lot since starting to identify my atheism to others nearly four years ago, from how people of faith and those perpetually unsure will have quite varied reactions, to how my own expectations of fellow atheists have changed. Here’s what I’ve learned, listed in the hope that it gives some sense of kinship to those who want to talk more about their atheism, or a deeper sense of understanding for those looking for insight into what drives someone to identifying as an atheist.

1. People Don’t Understand What Atheism Means, and it’s Necessary to Keep Explaining It

I guarantee you are an atheist. If you are a Christian, you do not believe in the pagan gods. You are atheistic about them. If you are a pagan, you may not believe in the concept of Brahman (or you might, because religion is both enjoyably and frustratingly pliable). Atheism, though, simply means a lack of belief. We’re all atheists in some sense, just some of us more than others.

It is important to acknowledge, though, that, in recent years especially, atheism has picked up another meaning. Atheism is often now assumed to be evangelical, looking to convince others against religious belief and faith. While many atheists do see a need to talk about why they became or are atheists, it’s perfectly possible to be an atheist and not wish to debate it, so this widening of the meaning isn’t entirely accurate. This leads us neatly onto the next point.

2. It’s Important to be Identifiable; It’s a Choice Whether You’re Vocal

Religion announces itself without needing to be said. You are assumed to be religious (or at least “spiritual”) until stated otherwise. As a result, and to combat the insidious creep of religious privilege, it is important to be identifiable as an nonbeliever because it is through doing so that you combat the notion that religion is the default good in society.

So, for instance, identifying as an atheist or non religious on official forms wherever possible helps to hammer home the message to our governments and our judges that when they speak of faith in encompassing terms they are in fact excluding a significant and growing number of people.

Whether you then choose to be vocal about your non-belief is a personal choice, and one that every atheist needs to make.

3. Your Atheism Might be the Most Offensive Thing About You (And that’s Okay)

I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of vitriol that came as a result of talking about my atheism. People of a fundamental religious faith seem to have the most difficult job in processing it. In fact, the failure to believe is almost treated as blasphemy in itself, a putrid, rotting thing that can barely be tolerated. Maybe it is because religion is so fundamental to many people’s sense of self, atheism therefore must feel at some basic level that a person is, for want of a better term, soulless.

I’ve always thought, however, that if someone can hold up not believing in the supernatural as your one seismic flaw, it’s a backhanded criticism heavy on the compliment. Well it’s fine, the line of argument goes, so long as you don’t shove it down our throats. To this I say that I’ve yet to see a door-to-door atheist dropping off handy leaflets on the virtues of unbelief, but when that happens, I’ll know it’s time to reign it in. Until then, I’ll count the rest as public, civil discourse among friends.

4. You Will Hear “Atheism is a Religion” an Awful Lot

But it can’t be, can it? By its definition, it simply cannot be. What people really mean when they say this is that they are rather put out by the emerging evangelism among atheist groups, or they believe that atheists worship something — usually science. We’ll take that as an example because it’s as good as any: I have a great reverence for the scientific method, namely because it works. It may take a long time to get its answers, and because it relies on the human animal it can be led down some very dark turns, but all in all its Socratean processes are worthy of praise. Yet, I don’t worship it. It is not divine nor does it purport to be infallible. I can follow the research behind scientific conclusions and, with time and expertise, verify them for myself. These two are not the same, then, science and God. Not even close.

5. People May Think you Have Absolutely No Moral Code; Show Them Why That’s Liberating

This is probably the most often used statement when anyone talks about atheism. It seems that some people believe that atheists, without a religious moral code, are but a whim away from becoming crazed, child killing cannibals. Fortunately, not so far.

It’s easy, though, to see that because religion has so often been the area from which we receive moral instruction that the two have become intertwined, but religion doesn’t have a special hold on morality. Exercising your conscience and sense of empathy along with a rigorous application of logic is enough to answer most if not all moral questions, no matter how difficult.

What’s more, I personally find it thrilling to not have a moral code. It has meant that I have been forced to think harder, to read more widely, and absorb more than ever before. That’s why, for me, realizing my atheism has been incredibly enriching and why, no matter the occasional negatives, I have found the process of coming out and being open to discourse about my atheism very rewarding — after all, no system of thought or belief should ever be immune to criticism and we are made stronger by accepting that.

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276 comments

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3:22PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

Don't tell: Don't ask.

11:51PM PDT on May 20, 2014

Hi Ken :-) - if things go normal I should be arriving in hell loooong before you ... I'll see what I can do to organize and provide you with the necessities - LOL! Glad you liked the music and looking forward to hear you play electric guitar "down there" ... Stay safe!

10:32PM PDT on May 20, 2014

I really like music,so i checked out your videos and they were good,thxs! And lots of other harp music to checkout later.......but at least to my ear,nothing beats an electric guitar!And if hell dont have a working slushie machine and electric guitars i dont really see why i would drop on by,maybe heaven will treat its customers better!

Well humans still have sometime before they destroy this planet,so lets hope they get it right before that time.

11:50PM PDT on May 19, 2014

Hi Ken! Don't you know that in hell there's no playing electric guitar - there it's verrrrry hot, they give you a shovel and you have to work very hard the whole day ... that's at least what we were told as kids during school - LOL!

But you MUST listen once to a Paraguayan Harp and I'm almost certain you'd change your mind - simply great! At the same time you get to know one of the contemporary best players ... Mika Agematsu, a young and brilliant Japanese (!!) lady:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcIzqxUAi9w. Or maestro Victor Morales in a lazy set-up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAsa7hIYQMI.

In my younger years I was arguing similarly like you do. Later in life a man told me (citing from his holy book) that our "creator" has given us everything we need but it's left to us to us how to use it. And that "He" (I thought it's a "she") could have created us all the same (my answer to why we kill each other) but he made us different in order to teach us/for us to learn to live together in peace and true tolerance.

Well - if all religious people would go by that ... incl. the rabid atheists ... we would still have the mess we have today as religion is ever so often just used as a fig leave to hide an ulterior agenda behind it and to cover personal power hunger and greed.

Seems that something in that project of "creating (un)human beings" went wrong ...

Stay safe!

9:07PM PDT on May 19, 2014

A well written article.

Barry made some good points,star sent for those comments!........and Wayne......well Wayne kinda just put it out there,and i cant say i reject all his understandings,but personally i dont think people are idiots for thinking other things,cause really its not possible to say god is real or not with 100% certainty.

I dont belive in god,his son,angels....ghosts for that matter,its all really great and all,and i have a very open mind,but i look upon it as fantasy.If god was real,it would be leading us rather then staying silent and trying to convince its angels that people need leadership by allowing satan to currupt us.....again great fantasy and all but in the end theres no god stepping up to the plate to lead its lost people.

I've never really had trouble with god fearing folks,although they do spend a great deal of time trying to save your soul,but usually in the end if you dont believe them they just tell ya you are going to hell......so now i just tell them i'm going to hell and would rather play an electric guitar then a harp anyday of the week!

11:08PM PDT on May 18, 2014

I was brought up as a Christian from childhood. For that reason I believe that I am a Christian. It would be difficult to clear out all that conditioning.
I have observed when working in a big hospital in Surrey, UK, that there was a difference between African Christian and Muslim doctors. The Christians would stay with the patient until their work was done, even if it took them for more than an hour into overtime for which they would not be paid. The Muslims would down tools and get someone else to take over. Maybe it was prayer time or maybe the way they felt what their duty was.
This was regardless of whether they were atheists or not in their actual personal beliefs.
William James, the great American psychologist also made this point.

12:09PM PDT on May 17, 2014

Wayne - it strikes me that you must be very, very young because one of the things that many of us have learned is that the more we know, the more we realize we don't know anything ... not for a certainty.

Using the traditional Christian view of god as my model for the purposes of this discussion, I would say that i find it unlikely in the extreme that those folks have got it right ... to the point where I would be shocked as hell if they did.

But I don't KNOW it and I know that being pretty sure isn't the same as knowing.

Here is the balance that I think is important going through life:

Form opinions and defend and hold them strongly, just not so strongly that you are immovable. LISTEN to others because they might add something to your perspective or even change it.

On the one hand, don't be a leaf, letting every opinion and new view shift your position but on the other hand, be open to new evidence, new perspectives, etc.

That is how we learn, how we grow.

Finally, one of the problems with religion is fundamentalism, one aspect of which is the absolute belief that I AM RIGHT and everybody else is wrong.

Your comments suggest that you are an atheistic fundamentalist and to me that is just as big a problems as any other kind.

Wayne said:

Agnostics are silly creatures. To say you are open to the possibility of Gods is like saying you are open to the possibility of gnomes coming to life in your garden, tooth fairies ransacking your pillows for teet

6:12AM PDT on May 15, 2014

noted

5:47AM PDT on May 15, 2014

Steve Williams.... THANK YOU!

1) This is a wonderful topic for discussion.
2) Your points cover many of my frustrations from not being in any religion.
3) The comments disparaging your article fully prove your article - religion resists anything that doesn't follow their beliefs.
4) Atheists are not necessarily as fundamental in their atheism as religious people seem to think.
5) Hey, live and let live. I don't expect nor require anyone to agree with my beliefs. Why do they expect me to follow theirs?

2:57AM PDT on May 15, 2014

I simply don't care.

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