Coming Out Of The (Atheist) Closet

Kathleen E. Breeden

“You’re an atheist? Give me a fucking break.” That’s not exactly the kind of language you ever expect a mother to use, especially when talking to her own son. Yet, at the beginning of “Pissed Catholic Mother,” an alarming video posted on YouTube earlier this month, the mother says those exact words to her son—who looks to be about 13—after he tells her that he’s an atheist. As the video progresses, the mother ignores her son’s attempts to explain his beliefs and becomes increasingly infuriated. She eventually loses control and grabs him by the shirt and yells, “You’re going to get absolutely nothing, nothing for Christmas, because that’s what Christmas is about, is Jesus Christ.”

“Pissed Catholic Mother” is shocking and disturbing to say the least, and it’s probably safe to assume that most parents would not respond with such hurtful and abusive language if their child were to tell them he or she is an atheist. Perhaps what is more unsettling, however, is that the mother’s reaction reflects, albeit in a distorted and grossly amplified way, the sentiments of many Americans.

According to a Mar/ 31 Newsweek poll, while 6 percent of respondents said they don’t believe in God at all,  3 percent officially declared themselves as atheist. This subtle yet meaningful disparity suggests that there is still a stigma associated with atheism.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though, given what most Americans think about atheists. In the same Newsweek poll, only 68 percent of respondents said they believe someone can be both atheist and moral, and a mere 38 percent of registered voters said that would even consider voting for a political candidate who is atheist. These startling figures make it clear why many nonbelievers treat the “A” word as a scarlet letter.

Intolerance of atheists is so ingrained in our society that public figures can even openly attack atheists without injuring their reputation. During a campaign stop in Chicago in the summer of 1987, then Vice President George H. W. Bush was asked by a reporter for the American Atheist news journal if he “recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists.” In response, Bush said, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Imagine if Bush had made the same comment about Catholics or Muslims.

It’s time for the atheist in America to come out of hiding. Atheists should be able to openly declare their beliefs without fear of alienation in the workplace, school, and home. The idea that belief in God is a prerequisite to morality must be dispelled so that atheists may receive the tolerance they deserve.

If the stigma of atheism is to disappear, however, atheists must have the courage to defend what they believe. And, as Richard Dawkins puts it, they must work to raise the public consciousness to the enormous prejudice that many atheists face everyday.

Just as the homosexual community adopted the word “gay,” some atheists have employed a similar method to educate others and improve the image of atheists in society. A few years ago, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California started the Brights Movement, an effort to encourage the use of the word “bright” to refer to anyone with a worldview free of the mystical and the supernatural. “A bright” is totally different from being bright. The word was not chosen because brights consider themselves especially clever or intelligent. It was chosen because “bright” is an uplifting word that atheists can call themselves to avoid all the negative connotations associated with atheist label. After all, why would anyone want to explicitly come out as an atheist, when so many people in America think atheists are all wicked and doomed to burn in hell?

Although the idea of a kinder, gentler term for atheists is noble in purpose, intolerance won’t end just because atheists find a new way to describe themselves. And it won’t end with bitter diatribes against religion either. For the atheists in America to become the respected member of society that they deserve, they must be willing to show confidence in their beliefs.
Last weekend, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard hosted “The New Humanism,” a conference that celebrated the Chaplaincy’s 30th anniversary at Harvard. Featuring a diverse group of renowned speakers, the conference discussed the future of humanism, a “rationalist philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” It is a philosophy that recognizes that this life is truly precious, and asserts that humans must do whatever they can to make the world a better place to live. The conference is a remarkable example of how nonbelievers can actively improve the public’s perception of atheism in a meaningful and inclusive way.

Yet, humanism is only one of the many ethical ways of life that atheists may follow. It is up to each individual to explain, and if need be, defend his or her own secular philosophy. Only when more atheists stand and speak up for their beliefs will people begin to shed their erroneous assumptions about atheism and decry bigotry against atheists. One can only hope that the “Pissed Catholic Mother” is of a dying breed.

Jimmy Y. Li ’09, a Crimson editorial comper, is a neurobiology concentrator in Leverett House.