Vail Daily column: Coming out as an atheist
“Someone you know wants you dead.” My first thought was that could be a lot of people. I was a bit alarmed but curious just the same. I was disappointed when I discovered this was just an innovative gambit by Nigerian spammers attempting to extract money from me. Previously, I had proven impervious to their claims of vast fortunes left to me by distant relations — I have seen where my parents grew up in New York.
Despite the ominous threat of mortal danger, it actually was not the worst threat I have received. No, that would be the sweet, born-again Christian woman sitting on my roommate’s bed in our college dorm room. With a genuinely concerned expression she insisted, “You’re going to hell.” Mere mortality pales in comparison to an eternity in perdition. What dastardly deed had consigned me to damnation? I was Catholic.
That conversation ignited a Catholic militancy in me that prolonged my participation in the church long after the fumes of my dwindling faith dissipated. When I quit trying to force myself to have religious faith, I felt a wave of relief. Gone was the pretense. I did not feel empty or alone, instead I felt free.
What I did not feel was contempt for those who do have faith. My intention is not to criticize religion or people who are religious. I do not intend to be an atheist proselytizer. This is simply my way of coming out as atheist.
Members of the LGBT community came out as a way of putting a human face to a human condition — homosexuality. Those brave people forced society to confront the prejudice, discrimination and fear the LGBT community was routinely subjected to. There are real differences between sexual orientation, which is innate and religious faith, which is a choice. That said both groups have been historically discriminated against, forcing their members to hide their true selves and beliefs and often pretend to be something they are not.
There are consequences to coming out as an atheist, especially politically. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 23 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Just over 3 percent identify as atheist — making atheists more numerous in America than Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists combined. Atheists outnumber Jews in America. Conversely, in the U.S. Congress, only one member identifies as religiously unaffiliated. In contrast, Congress has 28 Jewish members, two Buddhists and two Muslims. All but one of the Republican members of Congress identify as Christian. At the presidential level, Pew indicates that a majority of Americans, 67 percent, say that it is important that a presidential candidate have strong religious beliefs.
A 2014 speech by Sen. Jeff Sessions reveals what many faithful believe or have been told about non-believers, “ … if you don’t believe there’s a truth, you don’t believe in truth, if you’re an utter secularist, then how do we operate this government? … I do believe that we are a nation that, without God, there is no truth … ” More recently a question was put to Sessions during his confirmation hearings for attorney general from Sen. Sheldon Whitehorse from Rhode Island, which as a colony was originally populated by religious outcasts. “A secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” To which Sessions replied, “Well, I’m not sure.”
Lack of belief in divinity does not equate to the absence of a moral compass. As Richard Dawkins points out, many modern moral beliefs are not based on religion, but reason. He cites the humane treatment of animals, equality of women and rejection of slavery as examples. It is not my intention to pit my moral code against another’s, but rather, to reject the notion that only through religious belief is one able to be moral.
A gay friend recently told me, “I’ve met younger gay people who have never come out because they were never in the closet. Their entire lives it wasn’t an issue.” It is still an issue to be an atheist in America. You likely have family members, friends and neighbors that are atheists; you just do not know it. Only as more people openly acknowledge their atheism will the stigma and bias directed at atheists be eroded. In a country that proclaims itself the “land of the free,” no one should have to hide in a closet.
Claire Noble can be found online at http://www.clairenoble.org and Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.