Atheist Coming Out

A recent study by Gervais et al in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2011) shows people look down on atheists with similar disgust and mistrust as they do rapists. (HT to Epiphenom for the review)  Indeed, I know from experience that it is safer for me to call myself a Buddhist or a secular Humanist rather than an Atheist if my objective is to preserve respect from the person I am talking with.

Well, at least that is how it is in Christian privileged America. This is something many Christians are blind to. They may not want to feel they do this, but they do. Yet it is not just Christians who are disgusted by atheists. In the past six months, for instance, I have seen this happen with two possible new friends of mine: a New Age guy and his wife, and a lapsed agnostic Catholic.  These people invited the sharing of beliefs during casual conversation but were not ready for what they heard when I said I was an “Atheist” — it was too much for them.

But there is good news here too. As I discussed in my previous post, there is a dynamic mutual influence between your respect of a person and your respect of your own beliefs (1).    My illustration here is a concrete application of that principle: what happened when I shared that I was an atheist. The good news is that coming out about your atheism to someone who may respect you to some degree will lessen their prejudice about atheism even if they may now feel disgust for you.  So though they now think of you with the same disgust they have of rapists, your “coming out” may help lessen that person’s bigotry against the next atheist he/she meets.  Isn’t that comforting!

Of course, the same is true for Christians if they are a minority in their country. But I’ll wager that declaring yourself a Christian does not get you thrown into the distrust pile right there with rapists.

So, we should be thankful to those loud, publishing New Atheists who sacrifice their public opinion to help the rest of us non-religious in this religion-privileged land.  Not only does coming out help other individual atheists, it also slowly weakens the negative grip of the dark side of religious thinking on politics and science.  So as you feel safe to come out, realize that though it most certainly will involve a sacrifice, that sacrifice will serve many others.

Note: (1) I apologize that I have no reference for this principle.  I have asked a few people to help me search for it.  For now, you’ll just have to take it on faith ! 🙂   Just kidding.  Please keep doubting, I will keep looking.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Atheist Coming Out

  1. Most days of the week I’m an apatheist in that I don’t think it matters whether there is a god or not. But on those days of the week when I’m less than apathetic to the quesiton, I am increasingly apt to be an atheist. At least a six on Dawkins Scale of Belierf to Atheism.. That is, on my less than apathetic days, I guess the odds of a deity rank up there with the odds that an undectable elf is farting invisible rainbows outside my window. I didn’t realize until you mentioned it, however, that I could improve my image and acceptability by becoming a mere rapist.

  2. @ Paul Sunstone,
    With our multiple selves, most of us probably have an inner theist, eh? The question is, how of our behavior banks on that? To have the thought float by is natural — as is the thought of suicide, but acting on it is a very different thing.

    It is how we act on our beliefs, not the doubt that makes you an atheist. Or at least that could be one definition.

    When I read the study, even I felt sorry for rapists — What? being compared to filthy ATHEISTS ! Yuck.
    Thanks for stopping in Paul.

  3. exrelayman

    This is not too bad of a specific instance supporting one side of the two sided proposition of the last post. What has changed a bit, however, is worth noting. In the initial presentation of the proposition, a neutral assumption would be that the opinion in question had an equal amount of evidence supporting and discomfirming it. Here, clear evidence that a good atheist exists is brought into opposition to a mere unsupported prejudice.

    But this aside, it was the other side of the issue, that your assessment of your opinion would weaken when the other person agrees with you, that feels off to me.

    Sorry, can’t resist: I hate a yes man, don’t you? 🙂

  4. Great topic!

    Do you have a link to the actual study? When I click on the highlighted word I get led to 3 different posts on some guy’s blog and then to a “Master’s thesis” which leads to a “page not found” at UBC.

    I hope, considering my old blog post I am not repeating myself. But the problem with those New Atheists is many of the flat-out demand that folks like you and I must declare ourselves as atheists if we don’t believe in God.

    Then they bully scientists to do the same, even though scientists are supposed to be impartial.

  5. And then there was that elevatorgate thing…….not so good in a time of women’s rights.

  6. Well, I’ve scoured my psychology textbook and my favorite psychology blog site archives without success in finding a reference to that principle. I know it’s a valid one based on my own experience. :-/

    I’m of alelie‘s more-conservative persuasion, but I happily “take one for the team” when the situation is right, like in the open discussion you mention in this post.

  7. @ exrelayman,
    I hate “yes men/women” also. I think you are inaccurate in your evaluation but don’t know where to begin to explain. Maybe more examples in the future will help.

    @ amelie,
    I got the actual study and linked it for you. Thank you for asking.

    Concerning the New Atheists, whatever folks may think of them, I think their influences are very good. I did not like several of their approaches and generalizations, but overall, I think they make the world a safer place for nontheists.

    People who gripe about them will be benefitting from them or having their children benefit from them in the future I suspect.

    This wasn’t meant to be a New Atheist blog — I debated leaving that out. Oooops, oh well.

    @ The Wise Fool
    Thanks for looking. Tom Reese over at Epiphenom feels it is accurate too and he is trying to remember where it is found.

  8. CRL

    So, for every person who comes out as a rapist, rape will grow just a little more acceptable in our society! Great to know.

  9. I am afraid there is some truth to that. Consider the more celebrities cheat, steal, lie, dress provocatively and more, the more influenced the common TV consumer. If the rapist is highly admired prior, and he is not punished publicly for it, it may have that effect.

    Humans are dangerous animals.

  10. Sabio – Thank you! I only had the chance to read the abstract and the methods, but certainly plan to read the rest. Sounds like a fascinating and distrubing study. A few minor criticisms would be that A. all the subjects appeared to be psychology students (or at least, the same age and in college) and B. they did not define Atheist, so what if the subjects each had wildly different ideas about the term?

    Generally though, I think it is a very important study and quite shocking that even among liberals, the term has bad connotations.

    “Concerning the New Atheists, whatever folks may think of them, I think their influences are very good. I did not like several of their approaches and generalizations, but overall, I think they make the world a safer place for nontheists. People who gripe about them will be benefitting from them or having their children benefit from them in the future I suspect.”

    Well, that’s the thing. You ask a New Atheist and they will vehemently deny belonging to any particular group. They will unequivocally demand they be thought of as individuals who do not believe in God, and they will demand everyone else call themselves Atheists as well. So how can we say New Atheists are contributing anything as a collective?

    Of course, you know my opinion is that they are an organized faction.

    I would say groups like NCSE and USC are doing far more than atheists to keep evolution out of schools and out of government. Most Atheists I know merely attack others and complain (except some of the women’s atheist blogs which take an active roll in supporting these orgs).

  11. I hope that didn’t sound crabby. 😉

  12. rautakyy

    I have never read any of the “New Atheists” texts, so does that make me an “old atheist”?

    I think prejudice is based on people seeking security by confining things and people they meet into stereotype boxes. As if they had better controll over things when they can recognize any behaviour as part of this or that stereotypical group of people. For all atheists to represent atheism, all the atheists would have to agree on what they mean by atheism. There are literally thousands of sects of christianity, and most of them do not recognize the other sects as proper christians at all. In fact if the secular states would not have stopped them, they would propably still engage in bloody wars against each other on such matters.

    If atheism simply means not having a belief in any gods, then that is all it means. An atheist may be promoting atheism, or promoting the idea that atheism is equal to rape. That depends on the individual atheist and how she/he is percieved by other people in the first place. Is it the responsiblity of the subjects of prejudice to remove the prejudice from the minds of the narrow minded bigots?

    Is an atheist, a black person, a gay person, or even a woman committing a murder more guilty by betraying others who belong to these groups, when no doubt those religious, white heterosexual males see their individual actions and character representing the entire group? Should all religious, white heterosexual males be condemned if one of them commits rape?

    One of the reasons why religious people see atheists as such a low standard, is undoubtedly the fact that these religious people have trouble understanding other kind of perspective on matters and atheism is seen as something extreme. There are a lot of atheists with the same problem, though.

  13. @rautakyy I thought this is where I had seen you (before your comment) sorry it took a while to reply. 🙂

  14. @ rautakyy,
    I can’t really tell if you are interacting with this post or just using a few lines in the post as a springboard to launch into your favorite atheist themes. I can’t tell if you are talking to me or yelling at the world. It may be my poor reading. Let me know.

  15. @ amelie,
    Yes, generalizability is always a major issues in studies like these. Good point.
    You asked,

    So how can we say New Atheists are contributing anything as a collective?

    That argument sounded like language tricks. I am claiming that the individuals contribute.
    I looked up the NCSE (The National Center for Science Education) but what is the USC?
    It is interesting that you think women atheist blogs support science more than male atheist blogs — that sounds like an empirical claim. Smile

  16. rautakyy

    @amelie, no worries.

    @Sabio Lanz, it seems, I need to apologize for my lack of conversational skills. I am sorry. When I write a long answer to explain my view, in fear that people might not see the relevance of what I am saying to the matter at hand, I only manage to get myself caught in a web of many words. Let me try once more.

    Relevance of my previous comment in respect to your post and the following conversation:

    1) You wrote about the “New Atheists” as a group of people. Is the division to new atheists and other atheists real?

    2) You wrote about how people react to an atheist. But if atheism sets a person outside some sort of norm of common everyday people What is it that people find horrible about an atheist? Is it just the fact that this is exactly how any people handle issues they feel insecure about on some level?

    3) You said, an atheist may be comparable to a rapist in the eyes of people who feel they fill the norm of normal religious people. However, if atheist has not committed such harm as a rape, then is it the ethical responsibility of the atheist to influence other people to see atheists in general as better people?

    4) yes, I believe this is one of my favourite “atheist agendas”, but I do not see atheist in general as better people than any religious people. Atheism alone can not make a person a better, moral, more interresting, or otherwise compelling. As a result an atheist “coming out of the closet” may cause as much harm to the general image as remove the dehumanization loaded on the term atheism in the minds of religious people.

    This is pretty much what I tried to say before, but obviously failed. If it still does not make any sense, or seems totally irrelevant in comparrison to your post, you may delete both of them. There will be no hard feelings about it. I will just have to try to make better comments in the future.

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