I came across an article this weekend which highlight very well the difficulties with being an atheist in the United States, particularly in the small towns. I don’t have so many of these difficulties over the past few years, as I have been fortunate enough to be able to surround myself with sympathetic friends and an atheistic social circle. However, it was not aways like this for me, and I still remember the days when it was really a big deal to be able to tell anyone I had doubts about the existence of God without expecting an argument or a pitying, judgmental look. So for the last couple of years I lived with my parents I mostly tried to keep my mouth shut while these heretical ideas simmered inside of me, and the inability to express my thoughts and feelings made me very irritable. I have the strong feeling that this is where the stereotype of the “angry atheist” comes from: try living in a community where you have to keep who you are and what you think silent for fear social repercussions or other consequences, while being constantly bombarded with the message that those who think like you are, at best, abnormal, flawed, and “sinful.” It’s not a pretty picture.
I count myself as being very fortunate. When I was accidentally outed to my parents it caused some conflict, though the repercussions were not nearly as severe as I feared they could be. The worst that happened at my home was a few heated arguments and a creeping feeling that I was no longer fully accepted for who I was. It felt as if my family thought I’d gotten into something horrible, like I was an alcoholic or something as bad, because I had stepped out of their religious box in my search for the truth. But at the same time I was participating in an email list for ex-Christians, where I learned the story of one teenaged member of the list who was essentially kicked out of his home and denied unsupervised contact with his siblings because of his admitted godlessness. So I will count myself lucky.
About the same time I was discovering atheism, I was also discovering a wealth of information and support via the Internet. Websites like Meetup.com were just getting started, and that gave me the opportunity to meet with other people who thought as I did face to face. My dream of saying the word “atheist” out loud without fear was coming true. Since then I have found a priceless community of other atheists as well as people who prefer other labels but still see the world in essentially the same way.
Being an atheist does not mean you have to be alone.
I benefit a lot from living in a moderately sized metropolitan area, where it is easier to get in touch with other people who are interested in things like atheism. For people who live in smaller towns, things can be much more difficult. In the article Atheism in America, Julian Baggini tells the stories of a few atheists who live in smaller communities, which very often center their community lives around their church.
An atheist in Festus, Missouri, for example, has to deal with being brought up on the weekly prayer lists at his wife’s church even when he went with her weekly to be accommodating. If he wears his “scarlet A” t-shirt in public, he notices mothers pulling their kids closer as if he might be some sort of danger to them.
A man who was reunited with his family at the age of 46, having been a separated “GI baby” was first embraced by his family, but then rejected after he told them he told them that he was an atheist.
I don’t quite understand what it is about religion with some people, that for someone to express disbelief means that they are tainted and to be distrusted. I am currently reading the book The God Virus by Darrel Ray, who explains that for people in whom religious belief has fully taken hold, the “virus” will cause them to protect that belief at all cost…even at the cost of shunning people they love who might threaten it. I’m still thinking about and evaluating this idea, and I have to admit at times this model fits some of these circumstances.
But to me, the main lesson to be learned here is that atheists need community. Being the lonely atheist in a very religious town or family is no walk in the park. This is why I care about forming community, just simple social groups, for atheists where they can speak their minds and not be judged or feared for it. We are out there, everywhere, and the challenge is only how to bring us together. Meeting together with like-minded people is not a religious thing, it is a human thing. We are social creatures, and we all need community where we can feel at home.
If you are interested with meeting face-to-face with other atheists, check out Meetup.com, and use the search terms “atheist” or “atheism.” That is a great place to start, and as I find other resources on how to get in touch with local atheist groups I will post those as well on my “Atheist Activism” page.