Among my freethinker friends, I've been hearing a lot of questioning of and condemnation of what people are calling in-your-face atheism. Some of our group having noticed that Howard Thompson, to name one, uses the word "atheist" pointedly to provoke a response. He forces people to be aware of his atheism. "Wearing your atheism on your sleeve" is one way this characteristic has been described.
Oddly enough, in our society, a nonbeliever can be perceived by believers and nonbelievers alike as being a zealot simply for failing to hide or downplay her lack of belief. A bigoted society has conditioned us to consider a high level of overt religious activity and messages as a respectable, above criticism, inherent right. The same society considers virtually any display or statement of atheism, whether public or private, as sinister and outrageous. Even to other nonbelievers, an atheist simply using the worded "atheist" can seem like "in-your-face atheism." A double standard exists.
Life can certainly be easier if an atheist keeps his lack of belief to himself. Probably most atheists stay in the closet to avoid criticism and ostracism. You can use some euphemism or inaccurate label to hide the fact that one is actually a member of a hated minority. The advantages are many. The cost varies. Some people are comfortable with this approach. Others feel cheapened, dirtied, dishonest, and hypocritical.
Another approach atheists often take is delayed, limited disclosure. You hide your atheism until you feel that your new friend respects and cares for you. You feel sure that your friend recognizes that you are a good, moral, responsible person. Then you carefully expose yourself to be a nonbeliever, avoiding the word atheist if possible. After the announcement, you wait anxiously to see if you are still accepted. If the friendship continues, you carefully never mention the subject again. There are lots of variations of this approach. Maybe you announce that you do not believe. Maybe when your friend mentions God, you just roll your eyes. It depends on the friend. Maybe, you sort of make fun of your disbelief, soften it by calling yourself just a crotchety old cynic (its just you, its not that God really may not be there). Maybe, too, the friendship is over. Seldom is your atheism discussed openly and respected. But life can go on.
If the relationship doesn't end, you may feel a great deal of relief that you don't have to be so dishonest and hypocritical. But you probably better still be careful! Just saying a little too much can sour the deal! Walk on that tightrope.
What if you are just a more open and direct person? If you are as open about your atheism as believers are about their faiths, you will be regarded as an in-your-face atheist. If you mention your lack of belief as casually and often as your friend mentions her beliefs in ordinary conversation, she's a regular acceptable person while you are a fanatic. It is natural that basic philosophy will show up routinely in normal conversation. No one is condemned for expressing theirs but atheists. Then it is called "evangelizing."
There is another important aspect to the "in-your-face" atheist's behavior. Years of experience using the other two methods of being an atheist (staying in the closet or delayed, limited disclosure) indicate that although these two techniques may ease an atheist through life in a religious society, the will have no effect on society's acceptance of atheists. Friends of the disclosed atheist usually regard the atheist as a nice person "in spite of" her atheism. Atheism remains a dirty word.
The point of wearing atheism on your sleeve is to change society's stance toward atheists. It is a civil rights issue, a matter of freedom. The atheist who takes this tack is willing to be uncomfortable and to take a lot of criticism in order to push the envelope of what is tolerated in our society. It is not about trying to make atheism or atheists popular or liked. It has nothing to do with trying to convince others that atheism is true or good or the philosophy for them. The point is just to get people to tolerate atheists as citizens with the rights and freedoms of other citizens. And this can only be done by using the pointed words "atheist," "nonbeliever" or "unbeliever." Negative as these words seem to some people, they are the only words that will set us free. Atheists are ostracized for what we don't believe. We have received less hatred when we call ourselves freethinkers or secular humanists or agnostics or whatever only because people haven't always realized those terms indicated that we didn't believe in gods. You can't fight for the acceptance of something without naming what that thing is. It is important to each of us whether we are rationalists or humanists or objectivists or whatever, but religious people have no real interest in what our positive philosophies are. The defining characteristic that causes their hatred and therefore sets up us as second class citizens is our atheism.
Well, there is another point to being open about being an atheist. It is to show other atheists that they too can come out of the closet. Or rather to show when they can and when they can't. It makes it clear when atheists are tolerated and when they are not. It brings the issue out into the open to be inspected. We will find out which of our fears are warranted (yes, we really can get fired from jobs) and which may not be. Religious leaders have worked hard and successfully to get atheists to restrain themselves. Are our fears blown out of proportion? Sometimes, yes!
But, back to society's tolerance of open atheism. Society is always hard on those who first try to bring another group of outsiders in. After enough people stick out their necks, society comes around to, no, not approval of the group, but acceptance of them as people with rights. Remember when no one talked about cancer? People with cancer were shunned! People in racially mixed marriages were scandalous. People with all sorts of disabilities were supposed to live their lives in the basement out of sight so as not to offend "normal" people! I'm just talking about things I have seen in my lifetime, here. (And for those who haven't met me, I'm 52.) Oh, there is another one! Women over 29 might as well be dead (or tending to the children). In just a few short years, attitudes have changed so much! But what did it take? People who took a lot of flack for bringing these issues out in the open when society wanted, oh so badly, to ignore them! Was it hard? You bet! Did it work? You bet! Were those civil rights workers (for any of these causes) condemned and hated by some? Yes. Even by some of their own.
By Julie Fisher (from the Austin Community of Atheism website)
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