The Problem of Coming Out as a Non-Believer

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Author’s note: “This is the beginning of a series of posts about religious non-belief. I don’t like the term ‘atheist’ because it sounds so certain. So I use the term ‘skeptic regarding religious belief’ to denote the position of non-belief. The skeptical position that I take is that there is no good reason to believe in supernatural entities of any kind – religious or otherwise. Skepticism is not a claim that this or that supernatural entity exists or does not exist. It is the claim that (as far as I know) there is no good evidence leading one to conclude that it exists. There may be such evidence in the future. It isn’t likely, but you never know.”

Coming out as a non-believer or skeptic regarding religious belief is a traumatic experience for many people. Given the general disdain in North America (especially the U.S.A.) for people who label themselves “atheists”, proclaiming your atheism can alienate you from friends and family, colleagues and associates.

Many people – even nominal believers – will disown anyone with the temerity – what they often consider the arrogance – to express the non-believer, skeptical position – especially if they come right out and say “I am an atheist.” So I think we are better off if we avoid the somewhat incendiary term “atheist”.

This is not a dodge or wimpish attempt to hide behind terms. There are real issues at stake here. The term “atheist” implies a certainty that the skeptic is not prepared to assert. So just to make it perfectly clear, the term “skeptic” as it is used here is a short form for “non-believer in supernatural entities.”

Conversations about Belief and Non-Belief

Generally, conversations about “belief and non-belief” seem to work better in a one-on-one situation. Not always of course, but where you have a number of people of varying opinions trying to make meaningful points, it can be difficult.

It is one thing to have a free-wheeling conversation with someone who knows you, when you question the basic tenets of religious belief. Often this person is a close friend or family member, or a colleague who you have had similar discussions with before, and who accepts that you are not being glib or just plain confrontational.

But often, at least in my experience, topics come up in group settings, family gatherings, or outings with friends where it is difficult to express yourself honestly without offending someone. The topics are not always religious ones. For example, I was recently in a discussion with some fairly close friends where we talked about a range of topics – mostly politics. Religion wasn’t even mentioned.

At one point the conversation got so heated that I felt one of my friends might start physically beating on me. Actually the two of us had often discussed similar matters before, but this time I must have struck a nerve with something I said.

Be Careful What You Talk About

Situations like this make us realize there is a “social” dimension to our basic beliefs – whether they are religious, political, or moral. In western society we like to think our beliefs are matters of individual choice – and of course at some level this is true.

But as soon as a person expresses himself (or herself), shares a different opinion, or decides not to do something or believe something that all his or her associates are doing or believing, this has an impact on that person and potentially all those associates.

My point is that the discomfort involved in having meaningful discussions about religion (politics, sex, etc.) means that many people just won’t talk about these things. They prefer to stay away from controversial issues. We often prefer conformity and non-confrontation – so we keep our mouths shut.

The Problem of “Coming Out” in a Nutshell

This is the problem of “coming out” in a nutshell. It is so much easier not to get into conversations and confrontations with people who hold deep-felt opinions we consider to be either wrong or misguided. On the one hand we want to be honest. But on the other hand we are afraid of what our opinions might do to our relationship.

Often the non-believer is in a position of relative weakness. The child may depend on his or her parent to help them financially, and the parent uses this as a lever to get the child to go to church or be baptized – even though the child really doesn’t want to.

Even where it is simply an intellectual discussion the non-believer will often be in a position of relative disadvantage. The believer is committed to his position and he has been subjected to years of indoctrination and immersion in the doctrines of his faith.

For every opinion you express about what you think is the absurdity of the “man-in-the-sky” belief, the informed believer will have a satchel full of theological mumbo jumbo. Every time you suggest the Bible contains what appear to be inconsistencies and outdated science or questionable moral positions, they will have a nest of pat answers backed up by a long list of references to their current pop apologists. This forces the non-believer to fight the believer on his (the believer’s) terms, and puts him or her at an immediate disadvantage.

Three Possible Responses of the Non-Believer

In the face of this there are really only three realistic options.

1. You can acquiesce – shut up and pretend to give in.

2. You can stubbornly hold onto your own (non-belief) position and basically say “Screw you. I don’t care what you say, you are wrong.”

3. You can do your Research and really understand the issues.

Many non-believers take option 1 (Acquiescence) because it is the easiest, least confrontational position. Even pastors who have ceased to believe are sometimes forced to exercise this option because the livelihood of their family depends on them maintaining the charade of belief. For more information on this see The Clergy Project.

Most of us would say either of options two (“Screw you”) or three (Research) are ultimately the more noble way to go. On the face of it “screw you” sounds unacceptably dogmatic: “I don’t care what you say. You are just wrong!”

But I’m not so sure. Are we ever justified in simply writing off an alternative point of view? Perhaps in this case we are. Usually the non-believer has arrived at his position for fairly good reasons. He or she has heard the religious message many times and just isn’t convinced.

It may be true that the non-believer cannot clearly present his own arguments. But why should he? It is only because the believer has pumped up the importance of belief that it is even considered important.

From the non-believer’s position, saying he should be more concerned with a specific set of religious beliefs is like saying he has some kind of obligation to take up downhill skiing. Who is the believer to claim the non-believer should care about his (the believer’s) religion?

Let The Research Begin

But of course the possibility exists that the non-believer may actually find the belief/non-belief question interesting and important. In that case the “Research” option makes sense. Most believers will pretend to encourage this option, but of course will recommend the non-believer restrict his research to works by approved biblical scholars and apologists.

As far as I can tell, the community of non-believers has no axe to grind here. They have little reason to shove their opinion on others, and often having gone through a “deconversion” from belief to non-belief, they are pretty confident that belief will not win out in the end. Most non-believers I am familiar with have little doubt that an objective look at material both pro and con will not be good news for the believer. So non-believers: let the research begin!