"Coming Out Atheist" by Greta Christina. Photo courtesy of Greta Christina

“Coming Out Atheist” by Greta Christina. Photo courtesy of Greta Christina


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(RNS) Greta Christina has a question for closeted atheists: Ask your openly gay and lesbian friends if their lives are better for coming out.

The answer, almost universally, she claims, is yes.

That’s the message of her new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” A well-known atheist activist, author, blogger and speaker, Christina will speak at the American Atheists convention in Salt Lake City this weekend (April 17-20), an event geared to raising the public profile of those who do not believe in God.

“What nonbelievers have to gain in coming out is a better life,” Christina said in an interview from her San Francisco home. “This has been true about LGBT people, as well. Even in a phobic world, we are usually happier when we come out and the same seems to be true of atheists when they come out, too.”

Christina speaks from experience. In addition to being an atheist who came out to her family and friends nine years ago, she is also married to another woman.

Her message is knowingly patterned on the experience of the LGBT community, which has long encouraged lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to be public about their sexuality. Only by doing so, the thinking goes, can homosexuality be destigmatized and equality achieved.

And it’s worked. Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states. There are now openly gay members of Congress and professional sports teams and Hollywood has a firmament of gay and lesbian stars.

Photo courtesy of Greta Christina.

Greta Christina is a well-known atheist activist, author, blogger and speaker. Photo courtesy of Greta Christina

Just this week, at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, President Obama asked Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop, to give a benediction.

So why shouldn’t atheists take a page from the homosexual playbook? In the past decade or so, many atheist and humanist leaders have begun to openly acknowledge they can learn from those who fought for equality before them.

“I am learning not only from the gay rights movement, but the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who invited Christina to speak at the 2012 “Reason Rally,” which drew upwards of 10,000 nonbelievers to the Washington Mall. “Closeted LGBT and closeted atheists have the same problems. And the LGBT movement is going to win and so are we.”

Studies show atheists need to improve their image. A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University  of Minnesota found atheists are the most mistrusted and disliked group of Americans and “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years,” in the words of the researchers.

Five years later, a study conducted by the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia found that the distrust of atheists stems not from dislike, but from “moral distrust.” In other words, a large segment of Americans thinks atheists, because they do not have any religion, have no morals.

“There are a lot of myths and understandings about atheists,” Christina said. “There is the belief that we don’t have any morality, any meaning, any joy in our lives. There’s an idea that we are just in rebellion against religion, that we don’t want to follow rules. When there is stigma against you, it makes life harder for a hundred different reasons.”

The first step in the solution is for nonbelievers to come out and show they have the same desires, concerns and problems as their religious neighbors, she said. From there, they can build communities and find support — the things many religious believers say they find in their houses of worship.

“Coming out helps normalize nonbelief,” said Kurt Volkan, founder of Pitchstone Publishing, which published “Coming Out Atheist” and other books about nonbelief. “And normalizing atheism helps create space for nonbelievers in all parts of the country and allows them to interact with friends, families and co-workers in an open and honest way. The more people who encounter nonbelievers, the more accepted they will be.”

Still, Christina wants atheists to come out only if they consider it “safe” to do so. For the book, she gathered more than 400 “coming out stories” from nonbelievers around the world. All but one said their lives were better for having done it.

“That is one of the things that really struck me,” she said. “When you are in the closet and there is stigma against you, you tend to internalize that stigma. But if you speak up and say that stigma is wrong, you don’t have to take that negative opinion into you. Living in fear is difficult.”

YS/AMB END WINSTON

19 Comments

  1. Edward Borges-Silva

    I find no evidence to indicate that atheists have any reluctance at all to declare themselves, which is as it should be in a pluralistic society… we just happen to have different points of view.

    • Edward, have you considered that your lack of evidence may be due to a sampling bias? You only hear from the atheists who have decided to declare themselves. Those who are reluctant, you might never know they are atheists at all.

      Anonymous polling suggests that 15-20% of the population does not believe in a deity, but I can’t say that as many as 1 in 5-6 of my friends and family have told me so about themselves. That suggests there may be people close to me who hold this view, but don’t say so. I would consider that to be evidence of “reluctance to declare themselves.”

    • And yet there is so much negative association and prejudice against atheists that few if any political figures reveal their lack of belief in public. There are also active campaigns by some religious folks to impugn and denigrate atheists. Violence against them is not uncommon in some areas.

      If you do not see evidence as to why atheists would be reluctant to reveal their beliefs openly, it is because you are not bothering to look.

    • The Great God Pan

      In the real world, I definitely avoid identifying as atheist unless I know or am pretty sure that I’m talking to people who are also not religious. And I live in the supposedly “godless” San Francisco Bay Area.

      The hostility towards atheists in the US is real. You won’t be physically attacked, but people will tend to look down on you and consider you untrustworthy. This attitude comes not only from those old fall guys, the “fundamentalists,” but also increasingly from “progressive” believers as well as the burgeoning and disturbing “faitheist” movement.

    • @SIMONSAYS,

      You say…”There is no such thing as an Atheist (a non-believer)”?

      So you believe in all these Gods:
      Thor, Zeus, Agamemnon, Aphrodite, The Hummingbird Wizard, Allah, Rahman, Ganesha, Vishnu, Mithras, Hercules, Athena, 40,000 other gods…etc.

      How do you manage all the conflicting internal claims?
      Each God denies that the others exist!

      Or are you ready to admit you are an Atheist when it comes to those 40,000 gods.
      You just can’t seem to go one God further?

      • You make my point….gods…they Max had some concept
        of a supreme being!

        C’mon Max….give me an ancient civilization in which
        they had no god…or concept of a supreme being.

        You will never be able to prove it were I can….even thought
        it was primative…those belivers belived in some being…..NOT NO BEING!

        • @SIMONSAYS,
          Why do you need an ancient civilization? Why go back so far?
          What is wrong with all the Atheist countries of today where the majority of people have absolutely no interest in Gods?* :

          Finland
          France
          Hong Kong
          China
          Japan
          Denmark
          Estonia
          Sweden
          Norway
          The Netherlands
          United Kingdom
          Holland
          Scandinavia
          Luxembourg
          Uruguay
          Germany

          *Gallup Polling, 2005
          And according to Pew Research
          religion is dying out faster in more countries today
          than it is spreading.

          • Max….stick to the topic!

            Your red herrings wont work with me!

            By the way, it has been reported that the Boston and
            Washington diocese have recorded the largest
            number to people entering the Catholic Church ever!

            Max….stop with the decoys…..give me proof.

            C’mon Max……proof!
            I will make my statement again….There is no such thing as an atheist or atheism……prove it wrong….you cant.

          • @SIMONSAYS

            I only care if God is real or not.
            If you think there is evidence for a god, I’d like to see it.

            There are no cultures without taboos: “protect the tribe”, “don’t kill each other”, “don’t steal from each other”, etc.
            This proves only that humans formed governments for their communities and this organizing is why humans survived.

            You are asking for something which only proves ancient cultures were capable of organizing themselves with rules. It is meaningless to read further into it.

            Piling silly superstitions onto such rules is how they created the gods they later claimed existed. It has all been debunked.

            If you have no evidence for any gods, it is pointless to claim a need for them.

    • “There are no other Gods before me” – Yahweh.
      “I am the one True God” – Jesus
      “There is only one God, me” – Allah

      What do you do when the God you believe in is an Atheist?

    • Once again we in the atheist camp are send into frantic disarray by the deft, insightful, evidentiary polemics of a worldview that necessarily includes a talking snake.

    • Buddhists believe in NOTHING in the sense you are thinking of. Their belief is that nothingness is the ultimate expression of one’s spiritual being. If our spirit is reborn and still alive it means we are doing it wrong. [your mileage may vary by sect]

      All ancient Buddhist cultures had a blase attitude towards divine beings. When the cultural need arises for a pantheon of gods or a single one, Buddhism just blended the local pre-existing religion. But it is not an essential element. Either they have supreme being(s) or not. It makes no difference to the religious belief.

      We are atheists by birth. It is culture which creates religious belief.

      Ancient civilizations had few means for explaining the world around them. But as they became more advanced, the less they depended on religion to answer those questions. That former role has disappeared entirely from religion.

      • Buddhism originated in the 6th century B.C.E. in India, spread south to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Java, and Sumatra, and north to the Himalayan region, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Beginning in the 19th century, Buddhist teachings were carried to Europe and the Americas as well as parts of Africa and Australia. Unlike most of the world’s other great traditions, Buddhism is not based on any conception of a Supreme Being or Godhead. Rather than depending on God’s help to deliver us from evil and suffering (which is one view of theistic, or God-based, religions) Buddhism teaches reliance on human effort to relieve suffering. The Buddha is considered to be a historical figure, a human being who achieved great enlightenment, but not divine.

        Although the Buddha taught no reliance on a Supreme Being, he nonetheless accepted much of the existing worldview of ancient India, with its panoply of gods and demons. In Buddhist artwork and scriptures, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as preaching to or interacting with various deities. And many Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha almost like a god, while revering other earthly and celestial beings who have reached enlightenment in a manner similar to the way Westerners or Hindus worship God. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?

        Perhaps we can begin by noting that modern Buddhists practice their faith in different ways, as do Jews and Christians. For example, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who believes in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, and a Unitarian Universalist, who takes the scripture as largely metaphorical, are both Christians. For many Asian Buddhists, elements of the supernatural surround and suffuse their religion, partly the result of Buddhism’s having for so many centuries existed alongside the folk religions of India and China, which are resplendent with gods and goddesses, demons and ghosts and all manner of supernatural happenings. Other Buddhists, particularly Western converts to Zen, choose to follow teachers who stress the nontheistic core of Buddhism, with its reliance on personal effort to achieve self-realization. Still others interpret the teachings regarding celestial beings, demons, paradises and hells, especially as taught by Tibetan Buddhists, as metaphors for various psychological and spiritual states, images that help them in their practice but that they do not need to take literally.

        So it seems to be hit and mis when it comes to Buddist beliveing in a god.

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