It will surprise no one, I am sure, to learn that I am one of the “shrill,” “strident” “New Atheists” that get such a bad rap in the public sphere these days. My Facebook feed is a nearly uninterrupted stream of thoughts and images related to non-belief, with special emphasis on the brilliant feeds from the Iranian and Filipino atheist organizations. Between my activist streak and my impolitic, arrogant honesty, I’ve made my share of enemies on the Internet, mostly old friends from previous levels of education who turned out to be religious zealots with shitty opinions…or worse, libertarians.
I find people like that to be entertaining in the extreme. Wiping the floor with their farcical opinions is my favorite sport, and importantly provides any readers with a clear idea of the kind of schlock that passes for reasoning in such circles.
Perhaps more important than that benefit of my extremely vocal online presence is that it was just such a presence that brought me to where I am today. Before my friends’ Facebook feeds introduced me to Pharyngula, Greta Christina, and Friendly Atheist, I didn’t even imagine that such groups existed. I had long been convinced that I was very nearly the only one of my kind. It seemed that any mention of my skeptical attitude toward religion would doom me to a yet smaller circle of friends, and that my sole hope for romance lay in concealing my doubts long enough to woo someone who otherwise seemed suitable, and hash out the religion issue later in some fundamentally unsatisfying way. But when I came across those three blogs and the great, teeming masses of Internet atheists that read and comment on them, I was divested of that sad illusion. It was this kind of discovery that made me confident enough to list myself as “Atheist” on OkCupid…and the rest is history.
Since then, I have made a point to play that same role. I’ve been an atheist since before I hit puberty, but I’ve been a New Atheist, loud and proud, for only a few years, only since the Internet showed me I could be honest about my opinions and not die cold and lonely. In a very real way, I owe the atheist blogosphere my current sense of who I am, and in a way that I could not understand until recently, I pay that largess forward. I might never have learned that quintessential, friendship-defining, suicide-preventing truth that now occupies controversial billboards in the most dangerous windings of America’s heartland: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”
You can imagine, then, my irritation at the long series of friends and family offering the “constructive” suggestion that I either tone down my rhetoric on the subject or stop “bombarding” them with links and images and commentary broadcast into Facebook’s ethers. As one family member opined:
“I’m tired of this atheist crap. You’re way too hard core with your posts. Believe what you want but stop going on about it.”
I’ll stop going on about mine when I don’t have to so much as notice anyone else’s either. But in a world where whether to teach basic scientific fact in public schools is a question that actual, relevant people ask and frequently get wrong, and whose people daily remind me and my silent compatriots that they’d rather we not exist at all, quiet or otherwise, I don’t have that option. I will remind those people, a distressing number of whom are on my friends list for nostalgic reasons, that I’m here and I’m not going away, so that next time they’re in a position to say “I don’t know any atheists,” they don’t. It’s by ignoring people who said “Believe what you want but stop going on about it” that LGBT people got where they are today from where they were 30 years ago.
They affect me every time a family member tells me that there’s something wrong with being a good scientist during a prayer at a family event that I’d very much like to enjoy, and I’m expected to not only not make a scene, but to participate in the shaming of my profession and of the entire process of gaining knowledge to protect their sensibilities and not insult their “culture.” They affect me every time my parents tell me that there’s something intrinsically shameful about being an atheist that should make me want to make sure no one else ever finds out this basic fact of how I see the world.
They affect me every time someone on my friend list puts up a post insisting that non-believers exist in a dull, gray, lifeless world without wonder or beauty. (One of them did that directly at me during an online conversation without even realizing it, so ingrained is this trope in our culture.) They affect me every time a character on a television show is a caricature of cold, emotionless rationality or denial about emotions even existing “because they can’t be measured” and my family members look at them and tell me, “She’s just like you!”
They affect me every time someone finds out I’m an atheist, without knowing anything more about me, and stops talking to me altogether immediately afterwards, because an atheist is just supposed to take it in stride when xe is routinely treated as a persona non grata. They affect me every time I look up the number of states that have laws on the books that explicitly state that atheists aren’t fit for public office and notice it’s not zero. They affect me every time one parent in a custody battle gets to keep the kids because the other one was an atheist.
They affect me every time a Gallup poll reveals that the vast majority of Americans consider learning that a candidate is an atheist as a reason not to vote for that candidate even if they agree with absolutely everything else that candidate is offering. They affect me every time one of those polls shows that RAPISTS do better than atheists in most Americans’ minds. They affect me every time a school atheist club puts up signs and they’re vandalized within the hour by people writing over them that they’re all evil Jewish faggots going to hell, complete with Bible citations. They affect me every time an atheist in Indonesia or Egypt or Pakistan is arrested for “blasphemy” and the US’s response is to call for “sensitivity to other cultures’ concerns” instead of condemning this insult to our collective intelligence and morality.
They affect me to the point of throbbing rage every time my fellow atheists’ contributions to American history are written out of our cultural narrative because we Americans just can’t HANDLE the fact that some of the most important people in our country’s history, people like Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, and Alan Turing, weren’t good old church-going God-fearing Bible-thumping Christians.
Because I face all of that discrimination and more, I will be relentless in my targeting of religion and the unwarranted position of privilege it holds in our society. I intend to chip unceasingly at that position with ridicule, mockery, and biting criticism, until no one, anywhere, ever, regards religious ideas about how the world works as somehow more worthy of being taken seriously than any other idea with the same amount of factual support. I will remind people who think that religions don’t cause bad things, or are on balance a force for good, that they have a HELL of a case to make before anyone should give them the time of day. I will deliver those criticisms to make the lax, liberal, don’t-particularly-care believers out there realize that they don’t need to be part of religion to be good people or to participate meaningfully in their culture or to have friends, and so become willing to admit to themselves that they’ve always known it isn’t true and were just going along to get along.
Because I face all of that discrimination and more, all of it aimed specifically at making me feel unwelcome in the country where I spent most of my life, I will not be silent. I will be out, loud, and proud, so that others out there who aren’t in a position to not hide who they are know that they are at least not alone. I will lend my voice to the growing chorus of people who have shed the illusion of faith, until no one ever again escapes their childhood thinking EVERYONE believes in God.
Because it’s religion that’s the impoverished and factually absurd way of looking at the world, not atheism, and I’m far happier when I’m not pretending otherwise to protect other people’s perverse need to not meet people who think that they’re wrong.
And I will keep doing it until no one ever again feels as alone as I felt then.