No, I’m not gay. But I feel as if I can relate to the GLBT community because I subscribe to a belief system that usually changes how people treat me once they know it. I rarely open up to people about it for fear of being ostracized, and of ruining friendships or business relationships. Like being gay, my belief system is a personal choice and doesn’t hurt anyone, yet half of the people I open up to seem threatened by it and never treat me the same way afterwards.
I’m tired of hiding it so I’m going to get it off my chest and be done with the misplaced panic and frustration. My belief system is simply this: I don’t have a belief system. I’m an atheist.
Previously I would only tell people that I knew (from personal experience) were kind, forgiving, and open-minded. But even for such people (especially the devout religious), it’s harsh, so I sometimes soften the blow with a quick follow-up that I’m “really more of a skeptic”, and just haven’t been presented any credible proof that deities exist. If I’m lucky, they accept that and move on, probably with an internal understanding that “I’ll find my proof some day and join the rest of the population in believing in [insert personal deity here].” If I’m unlucky, I’ll have to field questions about the Bible. And then there are days where I have made a horrible calculation in judgment about a person, for which I am sent a barrage of “scientific” proof that $DEITY exists that I am expected to comment on. (These usually start with The Lost Day and quickly go downhill from there.)
Being an atheist is becoming easier in an increasingly modern world, but I can’t shake the feeling that society still has many years to go before athiests are treated fairly. Unlike similar issues of sexual and racial tolerance, there is no modern social identity of a “defense” for atheism. For example: If you discriminate against a minority race, you’re shunned by society as a racist. Same goes for discrimination against sexual orientation; you’re seen as a “gay basher” and similarly shunned. But tell people you’re an atheist, and it’s open season, no consequences. I have even had the pleasure of having my character questioned, I swear I am not making this up, by a gay, religious, African-American. The irony of the event was not lost on me, I assure you.
There are no feel-good Lifetime Original Movies for people who come out of the closet about being atheist. There are no moments over the Thanksgiving turkey where a family member proclaims, “I’m proud of you for being true to yourself.” Instead, it usually goes something like this:
“Why don’t you believe in [insert personal deity here]?” Because I haven’t been presented credible evidence that your deity exists. I’m a practical, scientific person; I usually require proof of something before I subscribe to it.
“What would it take for you to believe in [insert personal deity here]?” A giant flaming hand that lowers out of the sky and points directly at me, while a thunderous booming voice fills the heavens with a single “Believe in me!” (That’s not a joke answer — I’m being serious.)
“How would you know that such proof was ‘real’ and not faked?” In the case of a giant flaming hand coming out of the sky, would it matter? Either it would be true (ie. $DEITY exists), or it would be a truly phenomenal feat of engineering, optics, and science. Both explanations would warrant unconditional worship!
“What about the [insert religious text here]? Isn’t that proof that [insert religious text's deity here] exists?” Nope. Text without verification is fiction. Can you prove that the events in the text actually happened?
Not coincidentally, this is the most common place for the conversation to break down. How they react to that question is a good barometer of how much longer I will be able to talk to this person; hopefully measured in decades, but sometimes only in days. When it goes bad, it goes in multiple directions, none of them salvageable:
“What do you tell your kids?” I tell them the truth: Some people believe in a single God (with optional messiah in human form). Others don’t, preferring instead to believe in multiple gods. Still others eschew deities entirely, choosing to hold belief systems in reincarnation, nature, crystals, inner Chi, the Force, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And some don’t believe in any of that. I trust my children to be intelligent individuals who will research any religion or belief system that interests them. It’s completely their choice; as long as they remain intellectually curious, I am satisfied.
“Christianity is the most popular religion in the world.” No, it’s the third most popular. Hindus and Muslims have you beat.
“You’re going to Hell for your heresy.” If I believed in Hell, I guess I’d be scared. Got any travel brochures?
“If you don’t believe in Heaven, aren’t you afraid of dying?” Yes, but my fear of dying is the inverse of a love of life. It is the most amazing and wonderful opportunity we will ever have, this existence, and I find at least one gift in every day. It saddens me to know not everyone can do the same.
So. I’m an atheist. I’m out of the closet.
I hope we can still be friends.