The Ethical Dilemma: The Lonely Atheist

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

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Lonely Atheist: I am going through a bit of a crisis/transition period, and I was wondering if you could offer me any advice or resources.

I have considered myself an atheist for about five years. The more I educate myself, the more passionate about atheism I become. Lately, I have developed intolerance for religion, and have decided to be vocal about my opinions. I have always tried to preach compassion and humanity for everyone, but no longer feel like that is applicable to religion. I cannot tolerate blatant ignorance, and that is all religious dogma is to me.

Here is my problem: Nearly everyone I know has some type of religious affiliation. This has caused many problems for me because, while I am confident in my belief system, I do not have any social or moral support. I knew that this decision would cause me to lose friends and family; I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for is the effects it would have on ME. The only type of discussion I get to have on atheism is when a theist gets offended by something I post on my Facebook wall, or when my mom tells me that I will “believe again when I have children.” I constantly feel like I have to defend myself, as if I can explain the subject matter in a way that they would understand. Something I am becoming so passionate about is becoming a negative part of my life. I wonder if you could give me any advice, info on groups, discussion boards, etc. that could help me get more positively involved in the atheist community? I appreciate it!

—I’d Get By With a Little Help From Atheist Friends

Dear Friend,

I hate to contradict anyone’s mother. Our pediatrician says, “Mothers are not always right, but they are never wrong”—not sure what that means, but I love it. But if I’m any example, you will not believe again when you have children. In fact, you may become more of an activist to counter all the nonsense people try to stuff into children’s heads when they’re too young to know any better.

I’ll just give you a few suggestions and let our readers chime in with theirs. The American Humanist Association has over 180 local chapters and affiliate groups across the United States; see if there’s one in your area. You can also look for them through other organizations such as American Atheists, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Ethical Culture groups, and the Universalist Unitarian Association (which is a bit too faith-oriented for me, but many humanists enjoy the inclusive community they find there). Many atheist organizations also have regional and national meetings you might enjoy attending, and where you could make some wonderful acquaintances.

There are oodles of books, but I’m a huge fan of Greta Christina. Her Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless is less prickly than it sounds and really helps atheists feel good about standing up for ourselves—plus it’s chock full of great resources. I haven’t yet read more than the intro of her new one, but it sounds perfect: Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How To Help Each Other, And Why.

And then there are one-on-one friends. Surely you must already know some atheists, even if they haven’t identified themselves as such to you, or to themselves. Watch and listen carefully to what people say and how they react, and you will probably be able to spot some. Maybe bring up the Cosmos series, or Bill Maher or George Carlin, or South Park or The Daily Show or Colbert, and see whether the other person likes them and why. Through casual conversations, I found a goldmine of low-profile non-believers (as well as very nice believers) among people I do volunteer work with. Just the other day I was chatting with a woman I’ve known for nearly two decades who, when I mentioned I write this column, told me her non-believer father refused to attend her brother’s bar mitzvah; and the next day another long-time religious (I thought) friend told me her teenage daughter has declared herself an atheist, and she’s cool with that. Both were pleasant surprises to me.

Don’t feel as though you have to be a spokesperson for atheism, or that you have to respond to every argument and answer every question hurled at you. I always urge people who want me to respond to all their questions/criticisms about atheism to read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion  (which they never do, even if I give them a copy). You can pick and choose when you want to stand up and argue, and when you just feel like hanging back. You don’t have to tell everyone you’re an atheist if you don’t feel like it or if you think it might cause problems you don’t want to deal with. Pace yourself so you don’t burn out, and don’t waste your energy on circular debates (unless you get a charge out of them—I don’t).

Don’t give up on seeking support for your atheism, whether it’s online, in books, through groups or individual friends. I would tell you not to give up on atheism itself, but I don’t think that’s really a choice, any more than you can choose to become a believer once you’ve seen the light—of reason.

Atheist Amnesia: After keeping my atheism to myself, about 10 years ago I began to quietly, subtly let it drop in conversation, and then gradually ratcheted up to saying “I’m an atheist” whenever the subject of beliefs comes up. But I’ve noticed that I can say that to someone and they act like they didn’t hear me or they express surprise, and then a year later I say it to the same person and get the same reaction. I can even track down e-mails where I said it and they still say no, I never mentioned it to them before. What’s going on here? Are they in denial, or do they think if they pretend they don’t see atheists, we’ll go away—or we don’t exist?

—I Thought God Was the Invisible Being

Dear Invisible Being,

Anybody else out there notice the mike goes dead when you announce you are a non-believer?

I’m so glad you brought this up, as I’ve experienced the same thing and had to check to see if my reflection still appears in a mirror. When I first began this column, I sent a link to a short list of friends and relatives, many of whom are religious. Not only was it obvious from subsequent interactions that they weren’t reading the column (hey, I understand, we’ve all got lots of stuff to do), but a number of them have told me on multiple occasions that each occasion was the first time I informed them of it (even though I have proof that some responded to that initial e-mail saying that they read and liked the column— so does that count as one fib or two?). They can’t all have memory loss. Here I was worried that they’d reject me or despise my columns, and instead it’s like that season of “Dallas” that never happened.

I think the answer is they are indeed in denial—denial that someone they like or are related to can be an atheist, denial that their beliefs can be rejected by a reasonable person from within their own milieu, denial that maybe they could be wrong and we atheists could be right. Or maybe denial because they don’t want to think about how we are going to hell, because then they might be obligated to save us, against our will.

So let’s just keep putting it out there, which is under our control, and letting it roll off or sink in, which is beyond our control. Surely some of those ideological seeds we are sprinkling around will take root and grow new little sprouts among our acquaintances, which we will not only acknowledge but also nurture.